Devotions & Essays, Sermons

A God Who Rises

“Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene” by Jan Cossiers

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11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to Him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that He had said these things to her. (John 20:11–18)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Behold the man who died and who now lives. His heart was stopped but again pulses with a new rhythm and vigor. His veins spilled their crimson contents all over the Golgotha ground but now course with a fresh supply of warm, red, oxygenated blood. His lungs were deflated and flat after that loud cry with which He yielded up His Spirit but now they expand and fill with the perfumed, stale, air of the tomb. His eyes were closed in death but now open and squint to take in the sites. His hands had been nailed but now they spread all ten living fingers open before picking up the grave cloths and folding them. His feet had dragged lifelessly as His body was placed into the tomb but now they reach to the ground and plant ten living toes into the cool dirt. His skin had cooled to the ambient temperature of the stone-and-dirt grave but now radiates heat and warmth, though it still possesses five distinct wounds from nails and a spear. His brain had been still and dead but now electrons dance and synapses and neurons sparkle. His stomach, which hasn’t eaten since Thursday, growls and suggests somewhat urgently that the Lenten fast is over. Behold, the man, Jesus, God and man, lives. He rises triumphantly from the dead and strolls out of the grave into His creation.

And Mary mistakes Him for the gardener. It’s an honest mistake, really. She was understandably confused. She showed up first, while it was still dark and the disciples were asleep. But she probably hadn’t slept for days. As soon as day began to break after the Sabbath had ended, she went to the tomb. When she saw that the stone had been taken away, dislocated from what she knew was its permanent resting place, she ran and told the disciples. She found Peter and John first, and the words came crashing out so quickly, it’s any wonder they understood her at all. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”

They all went back to the tomb, Peter and John sprinting. John doesn’t bother to tell us whether Mary Magdalene ran or walked. But when the men wandered away bewildered, she was there. She stayed outside weeping, grieving at the double loss. First the One she called Lord was crucified. Now His body was missing. The angels are perplexed at her weeping. “Why?” Her distress is wrong, not part of her honest mistake. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Then she turned around and beheld the Risen Lord. He asked her the very same question as the angels: “Why are you weeping?” and added, “Whom are you seeking?”

Of course, she supposed He was the gardener. This was an honest mistake. It’s not a mistake to confuse Jesus with a gardener. It’s a mistake to confuse Jesus with this gardener, the caretaker of the cemetery. He is no caretaker of cemeteries. In fact, He is quite the adversary to anyone who wants to keep cemeteries neat and orderly, who wants graves undisturbed, who wants peace and quiet maintained. There is a gardener, a caretaker for those things. But this man is not he.

There are many caretakers for the cemetery of the world. Maintaining this cemetery is the peculiar pastime of the world. I don’t mean, of course, the tending to real cemeteries or the peculiar business of operating a funeral home.

Ironically, the funeral industry thrives from shielding you from the stinging reality of death. First, there’s the cutting, draining, embalming, stuffing, plugging, sewing, and otherwise disguising the cold reality of a dead body to make it look as close as possible to the picture you provide the undertaker. Then there’s the casket, the liner, and the vault, because who wants to deal with the reality of ground that sinks as bodies decompose? And then the euphemisms: “He has passed on.” “She’s in a better place.” “He’s watching over you.” “Heaven needed another lady in its bowling league.” Finally, the funeral in the church has been replaced with the “celebration of life” in the mortuary. That’s all exceedingly odd and out of touch with the reality that death is a rupturing of God’s perfect creation.

It’s only in times of national emergency like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or pandemics that the terribleness of death is noticed and we don’t know how to deal with it when human lives (or at least some lives) become precious.  

It’s a sad fact that our culture often promotes death. The strong are encouraged to eliminate the weak. Mothers are persuaded that it is more convenient to kill their unborn children rather than shouldering the burden of being a parent. As soon as our elderly show some sign of slowing down, we want to scuttle them off to care facilities rather than take the time to grow old with them. And if our elderly are indeed too infirm to live at home, we do not take time out of our busy life to visit those who gave us life. Vengeance is yours. Suicide is noble. Divorce makes sense. Happiness at all costs. War is just. Kill or be killed. Efficiency is our idol. And nothing is more efficient than death.

The Didache, a first-century compilation of the teaching of the apostles, describes the culture of death like this:

And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and full of curse: murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rapines, false witnessings, hypocrisies, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing requital, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him that is in want, afflicting him that is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.[i]

There is nothing new under the sun. Who has not bought into this evil way of thinking? Repent. Death does not become you.

The culture of death is not an American innovation, though we’ve made this idealized and idolized morbid production more efficient with every new technology we embrace. It is as old as creation, minus maybe seven or eight days. It was a culture of death that drove the first humans to rebel against the source of life, their Creator. “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” dyingly die, forever be more inclined toward death than life, see death as the unavoidable end to your lives, kill and fight, destroy both the Creator and His creation. You will die.

And then what happened? They fled from the gardener. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden, and they hid, fearing for their lives. The God who had created them with His Word; who had scooped Adam out of the fresh, fertile adamah, or earth; who had planted a garden called Eden and put His humans in the garden to care for it and tend it; who still had the dirt of His creation under His fingernails, having indulged yesterday in the perfect Sabbath of His good creation, now strikes terror into the hearts of these be-your-own-gods rebels. And He should. He is life. They chose death. Adam became the first gardener of death, and the mere existence of the gardener of life made him afraid for his life.

Since then, the tension between Creator and men has been a clash of life versus death. But it didn’t stop the divine gardener from taking the occasional stroll in His creation, from tending His garden. So it should be no surprise to us that when the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus, when the Creator took an extended stroll in His creation, He exercised the skill and patience of a master gardener as He walked the rows.

Behold the man who tends His garden, who, everywhere He went, pulled the weeds of blindness and paralysis, leprosy and death, unbelief and rebellion. Behold the man who sowed the seed of His Word, the news of the new, irresistible reign of life, swallowing up the regime of death. He promised life, but it would come through death—specifically, His death. The death of this man at the hands of the caretakers of the culture of death, the gardeners of a dying world.

And so when Mary Magdalene beheld the man who created the Garden of Eden, who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and who was dead and buried in a garden, she made the honest mistake of assuming that He was just another man, just another gardener in the gardens of death. But He is not.

He is a gardener, but of a completely different sort.

So here we are, at the dawn of His resurrection, in the fresh rays of a new dawn, basking in the glow of life, overcoming the shadows of death, and undoing a culture of death through sacrament and song, beholding the man who rose from the dead to obliterate death’s stranglehold in His good creation.

Join with Mary Magdalene in her pious mistake. Suppose the crucified and risen Christ; the grain of wheat fallen dead into the grave, buried in infertile ground, and broken forth in the bloom of new life; the eternal sower; the gardener of Eden; the new man, to be the Gardener. He is the gardener of His new heavens and new earth, the caretaker of the culture of new, resurrection life.

Behold the man who gives life. Believe in His bodily resurrection and your own, already begun in the waters of Holy Baptism, but not completed until His return. Behold the man who answers the culture of death begun by the first man by immersing Himself into it and dying at its hands. Behold the man whose death has destroyed death. Behold the man—the only man—with the authority to take His own life back up again. Behold the man who emerged from the grave and was immediately confused for the gardener. Behold the man whose resurrection means your resurrection. Behold the man who feeds you with the only body that rose from the dead in victory over death. Behold the man. And in Him, behold yourself, holy and whole, forgiven and free. In Him, behold the man or woman you are now and will be fully when He raises your very flesh from the grave.

Jesus’ resurrection is not just for His sake. As His death was for us, who are bodily dying as the consequence of our sin, now His resurrection is also for us, over whom death was thought to have the final word. Jesus rose bodily; His body and soul were knit back together eternally. And He promises the same bodily resurrection for us—not some disembodied rest for our souls with Him. Our lungs will breathe again. Our hearts will beat warm and strong anew. Our eyes will see; our ears will hear. Our lips will be freed from their lifeless rigor mortis to join the unending Te Deum of the eternal Bride of the resurrected Christ, His Holy Church. Our bodies will rise, as His is risen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

This sermon is adapted from a sermon series by Jeffrey Hemmer published by Concordia Publishing House.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Didache [The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles], Ch. 5: “The Way of Death,” ANF 7:379.

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Christ Is Risen! He Is Not Here; He Is Here!

He is risen!He is not here...Click here to listen to this sermon.

“And [the angel] said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you’” (Mark 16:6–7).

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Hallelujah! Amen.

St. Mark brings us a puzzling picture in our text. Did you notice how his resurrection account is different from the other Gospel writers in a significant way? What is different? There is no Jesus. There is no sighting of Him. St. Mark reports to us that people are talking about Jesus’ resurrection, but there still is no Jesus.

This is troubling. It sounds like a myth in its infant stages. Could it be? If we do not see Jesus with our own eyes, did He really rise from the dead?

You can see where this might lead, can’t you? When one questions Jesus’ resurrection, then the crucifixion must be questioned. If the crucifixion is questioned, then His virgin birth and righteous life must be questioned. If His birth and life are questioned, then His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit must be questioned. The whole life of Jesus, from conception to ascension, all fits together as one message. When one part is removed, the whole thing comes falling down like a house of cards. When one doubts the resurrection, then one doubts God and His promises to us throughout the Old and the New Testament.

In God’s holy Word, we hear His promises of the Seed of the woman Who would crush the serpent’s head, the Prophet greater than Moses, the King more powerful than David, the Priest in the order of Melchizedek, the Savior of Israel, the substitute sacrificial Lamb provided by God to take away the sin of the world, the Kinsman-Redeemer who would pay the debt of His people and take them to be His Bride, the Servant who would suffer the afflictions of the people in their stead.

Throughout all these promises, the consistent message is that God Himself will take our place—not just any lamb, not just any redeemer, or not just any mere human will do. It must be God Himself, given in exchange for our sins. The life of the God-man must be given in exchange for the life of all humanity. These are the promises the Church has heard ever since sin entered the world.

The Lamb of God is sacrificed once for all people, and in His resurrection, He proclaims His victory over death. The resurrection is the “I told you so!” of the Gospel message. It is a moment of glory for our Lord.

Still, everything hinges on this outcome of the life and death of Jesus. It all goes hand-in-hand. Jesus saved us through the humility of His conception, life, suffering, and death. His cross saved us. Without His cross, His resurrection would be meaningless. We would still be in our sins. Without His resurrection, His cross would have been meaningless. He would just be another martyr who died for a cause in which He believed… but not a Savior, not a Redeemer, not the first-fruits of the resurrection for all who would believe in Him.

We need to remember that on the Last Day all people will rise from the dead, not only believers. Believers and unbelievers will rise from the dead. Murderers, sex offenders, liars, and nice people will all rise from the dead. Hitler, Stalin, Gandhi and Mother Teresa will rise from the dead. Those who believed in Jesus Christ as their Savior will be taken to live with Him forever in heaven. Those who denied Christ will be sent to everlasting condemnation in hell.

So the message of Easter is not so much about our resurrection, but the resurrection of Jesus. Just as the crucifixion is not merely about the death of just anybody, so the resurrection is not just about any resurrection. After all, other people were crucified throughout history, and Lazarus and others rose from the dead. So what makes Easter different? What makes Good Friday different? What makes St. Mark’s report of the resurrection different?

St. Mark’s Gospel provides us with the testimony of the angel and the fulfillment of the promises of God’s Word. It shows the reality of our daily lives. We could easily be substituted for the women at the tomb. In St. Mark’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Sounds peaceful, doesn’t it? Don’t we sometimes wish we were there that glorious Easter morning? It would be so exciting, wouldn’t it?

But you have to wonder, is St. Mark’s recording of this Easter really so different? Could it be a picture of unbelief? Did these three women doubt the Word of God? Did they believe Jesus when He proclaimed His resurrection? Is this a foretaste or prophecy of Thomas, the one who doubted that Jesus was alive?

We love to pick on Thomas because he effectively said, “Prove it!”  But we seem to leave out these three women, who were also among the many doubters. Yes, even in the midst of Jesus’ closest circle of believers, even among those few brave women who stood near during Jesus’ crucifixion while most of His chosen apostles cowered in fear, there were doubters. Remember… the three women went to the tomb to anoint the dead body of Jesus. They weren’t planning on seeing Him. They did not expect He was going to rise from the dead.

Did they doubt the Word of God? Had they forgotten the prophecies from Scripture? Did they not believe Jesus when He proclaimed His own resurrection? I mean, it’s one thing not to understand Jesus meant His own body when He told the Jewish leaders, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” It’s entirely another to miss Jesus’ transparent warning only a week earlier as they traveled up to Jerusalem: “The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him. Three days later He will rise.

Those of us who live two thousand years later can easily look down on Thomas, the three women. It still bugs us, because they were there and saw Jesus. They saw Him perform miracles and heard Him preach in the temple. It seems that they should have had an advantage that we don’t have.

But let me ask you this: If you saw Jesus today, would you believe He is God? Would you think this man, who is performing miracles and preaching, is the same God who created the world and made the first man out of the dust?

Did Jesus look like God when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the sweat oozed out of His pores mixed with His precious blood? Did Jesus look like God when He was stripped, beaten, and mocked? Did Jesus appear to be God as He hung on the cross? Did He seem like God to when He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46).

No, He didn’t look like God. The truth be told, He even looked less than human at times didn’t He? Or, at least He was certainly treated less than humanely.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on them! It’s very likely, at least for the sake of friendship, that we, too, would have taken spices with us to the tomb early on the first day of the week, because we believed that a lifeless body was to be found in the tomb, for which we wanted to show our last respects.

To trust our Lord’s words when He spoke of a kingdom that would never end, or how He would go away and then return, or that He truly was the resurrection and the life goes against all reason and common sense, doesn’t it?

That is the point. It is not about reason and common sense. It is about God’s promises throughout history. The resurrection becomes the proclamation of the fulfillment of God’s promises. It is the very evidence we have that Christ has conquered death and paid the price for our sin. Yet whether it is the young man in white robes of Easter morning speaking to the three women or you and I reading God’s Word, our faith must grasp what we hear and trust it.

But even faith in the Gospel is the work of God. The Holy Spirit must even create the very faith that grasps the Word of the Gospel, for we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him. Only faith is able to confess that Jesus is true God and true man. Only faith can confess that Jesus’ conception was that of the Holy Spirit. Only through faith is one able to look at the body of Jesus on the cross and proclaim that the glory of God is in this death, for God is the one who died for our sins. Only God could reveal to us these teachings, and only faith can accept them and then give thanks for them.

The resurrection is also a matter of trusting God’s Word, whether it is the word of the young man in the tomb or St. Mark’s recording of that incident. We must repent of our unbelief when we second-guess God and His Word. We are in the same circumstances as the three women and Thomas. St. Mark’s account of the resurrection is no different from what we know in our lives. Some things can’t be proved. They just have to be accepted by faith.

Yet we might think back and cry out, “But they were there and eventually saw Jesus. That had to help. It had to make a difference to have Him there with you, to hear His voice and hold His body.” Yes, that is true. Our Lord knows you need His physical presence as well. His grace, mercy, and forgiveness come to us where He said He would be present—in His Word and Sacraments.

What this means is that every time we gather for worship it is Easter. Every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, it is Easter. In the Divine Service, God Himself is present, not because He is the Creator and all-powerful God, but rather because in the humility of bread and wine and the spoken Word He proclaims Himself to have risen from the dead. The very work of the crucifixion, the payment for sins, comes to us through this Holy Meal. Here, He appears to you in this Easter celebration, in His Word, and in His very body and blood. Through faith in His Word, we receive Him into our presence and enjoy the forgiveness of sins.

So, as you approach the altar today, let the words of the young man in white robes ring in your ears: “There you will see Him, just as He told you” (Mark 16:7). You can be certain that you will too. For God’s promises are true. And because the risen and ascended Christ is here in His Word and Body and Blood, you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.