Sermon 65




Consider Well the Earthquake

Matthew 28:2


April 24, 2011


Beloved in the Lord, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     This is a great day. This is Easter day. It’s a great day for the Church and for the world. For on this day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – long ago in Israel, outside of Jerusalem, 2000 years ago. We celebrate that event today. And we do it by hearing the holy words of the sacred Scriptures read, by receiving the Sacrament, and by singing grand hymns of praise.


A Sand Castle Resurrection

Now for those of you who have been paying close attention, you could rightly accuse me of a non sequitur already. For you could say it didn’t sound like it was a great day, according to the readings. For they tell us that when the people heard of the resurrection they were afraid and they ran and they were scattered. There was a great earthquake (Matthew 28:2), and those standing by the tomb, when the stone was rolled away, fell down like dead men.

     So you could say: “I’m sorry pastor, but your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premises.” And I would have to agree. For if the Lord God Almighty, 2000 years ago, had called me to orchestrate the resurrection – me, long before I was even a twinkle in my parents eyes – this is the way I would have done it. There Jesus is, crucified, taken from the cross, and sealed in this tomb. And now we have to bring him back from the dead. So what I would do is have this stone tomb crumble quietly like a sand castle – fooosh. Can’t you see it? – fooosh – just falling into a pile. And then, a bevy of butterflies coming up out of the tomb. And then the sound of birds chirping. New life! Peace! Tranquility! And everybody would be happy. Death is conquered. Nobody would be running away scared. The soldiers would be looking at all the butterflies – and listening to the birds. Everything would be wonderful.


Destroying the Devil’s Works

But that’s not how it happened! If I had proposed that – the Lord God Almighty would have taken a shepherd’s crook and yanked me right off the stage. The resurrection will not take place in that way! The Lord God Almighty says instead: “I want an earthquake! I want an explosion! I want to scare ‘the bejeebers’ out of them!” And so we need to know why. Why? And the answer to our question is found in the book of First John – there we learn that Christ came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:18).

     So at every turn in Christ’s life, when something magnificent happens, to bring health and salvation and goodness to a wicked world (James 4:4) – it’s cataclysmic and there’s a collision – because he comes to destroy the works of the devil which are regnant throughout the world. And so there’s an eruption! – there’s an earthquake, there’s noise – the ground shakes under your feet. I don’t have to explain that to Seattleites! And there’s panic! – running for cover! We don’t fall down and fold our hands and start singing serenely, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” [LBW (1978) hymn 229]. We’re running! Scared to death, falling down like dead men, the Scriptures say (Matthew 28:4) – because the works of the devil are being destroyed, at every key juncture in his life – and it’s no different now when he’s being raised from the dead.


Luther’s Sword

Now what are the works of the devil that are being destroyed on Easter – at the resurrection of Jesus? The Scriptures tell us that the “sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). So what’s being destroyed is the law, and sin, and death – all of which bind us up in a morbid fear (Hebrews 2:15), that, with scorn, weakens, and saddens, and destroys us.

     When Christ is raised from the dead, sin is destroyed and so the sting of death is taken away, and so is the law (Romans 10:4) which gives sin its power – to make death sting deeply within us.

     Now long ago in Germany, some 450 years ago now, Martin Luther (1483-1546), the progenitor of our Christian community, said that the sting of death is actually a spear – it’s a sword – that pierces us (Luther’s Works 28:207-208). So we don’t come to a realization of sin in our lives, and we can’t tell about sin if we don’t know the law – for then death is not so bad (Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, 2008). And Martin Luther is exactly right about this, for the people that I know who are secular-minded, and don’t pay any attention to God’s law, and wouldn’t know sin if it bit them on the nose, they have no fear of death. Death for them is just the turning off of the lights – and that’s the end of you, nothing more and nothing less – pure and simple.


Final Judgment

But the Scriptures proclaim that death is to be feared (1 Corinthians 15:26) and that’s due to sin. And what we learn about sin through the law is that all of us who have broken the law of the Lord have hell to pay (Luke 16:23; Romans 2:5). There will be a come-uppance, there will be a judgment (John 5:22, 29). We don’t just skate through this life! (LW 23:362). There will be a final determination for every last one of us: What did your life add up to? Were you on the side of the angels or on the side of the demons?

     And it will be a final judgment with no appeals (Luke 16:26), because finally the truth will be told about you. Some people believe what mother says about me – how wonderful I am! But what does she know? She hopes the best for me, even if it’s not there! But in the end judgment will be made of Ron Marshall, and it will be absolutely true – it will pierce to the marrow of my bones. And that’s why death scare us, because death brings it on (Hebrews 9:27). And there’s no way that I can come to a realization of this sin because everything around me tells me that there is no sin. There are just accidents here and there. But there is no corrupt nature as Luther said, that turns us in on ourselves – incurvatus in se, as he liked to say (LW 25:513), whereby we are crippled by our disobedience and our rebellion against God and so we cannot stand tall, we cannot breathe in the very spirit of the Lord (Judges 3:10) – theרוח יהןה  – and live the way the Creator wanted us to live. No, there’s no way you can come to a realization of this because we all want to put the best face on things. We all want to be positive rather than negative. So the only way to come to a realization of sin – which is the sword that is put in the hands of death to pierce us and make us afraid to die – that can only come through the law. For it alone tells us that all have fallen from the glory of God (Romans 3:23), all we like sheep have strayed (Isaiah 53:6), it’s not what goes in you that defiles you but all the evil that’s within you (Mark 7:21) – and on and on and on. The good that we want to do, we do not do, and the evil we do not want to do, we do (Romans 7:19), and the light came into the world and we loved the darkness rather than the light (John 3:19) – and on and on and on. It’s only from the law that we get this – and finally then fear death.


Only Christ Saves Us

So to destroy death, you first have to get rid of sin, and you can only do that by getting rid of the law. And that’s what comes on Easter. Christ died for our sins that we might live (1 Corinthians 15:3). When we believe in him, that he was punished in our place (1 Peter 2:24), the law is then taken care of, as is the sin that condemns us (Romans 8:3-4). This is what the Easter does for us!


Set Your Minds Above

So if we are going to rejoice this Easter Day, we’ll have to get our minds around the works of the devil that are destroyed when Christ was raised from the dead. And we will have to ponder rightly and consider well that earthquake that shook the first Easter, and see in it our redemption, our freedom, our rescue, our deliverance. Oh, but there is so much that holds us back from this. We run high-tail like those first witnesses in fear. We run away from it all. That’s because we want the goodies without the difficulties. We don’t want to hear about fearing death – we don’t want to hear about sin and the law. But the Scriptures link them all together – and you can’t get one straight without the others.

     So what shall we do? Since we’re all born “children of wrath” (Ephesians 3:2), our inclination is to move against God rather than with him. So what’s next for us on this Easter Day? Well, we’re going to have to make the same move that is in Colossians 3:2 and set our minds on the things that are above. But what does that mean? It means not to look at your own efforts. Don’t try to free yourselves from the fear of death. That’s over. It’s a dead end. Trying to make yourself rejoice is as silly as trying to get a plant to grow by pulling on it [G. Forde, The Preached God (2007) p. 141]. So don’t look within – but on what’s above, where the action is. For in heaven God is canceling our sins in the suffering and death of Christ (Colossians 2:14). This complete victory in Christ (LW 28:209-211) is what we declare on Easter Day. So glorify Christ for saving the ungodly while we were still sinners (Romans 5:6-8). Come and receive him this day in the Lord’s Supper. And then do good works in his name as well (Galatians 5:25). Root your joy in what God has done for you (Psalm 118:24). Don’t wait for a cure for cancer before you rejoice, or for an economic recovery. Rejoice now – as you consider well the Easter quake. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)