Sermon: The Second Date
Scripture: John 19: 38- 20:2
Date: April 16, 2017
As if the world doesn’t offer us enough challenges, I read this week that we are running out of space to bury our dead. There are some places where this problem is most pronounced. In London for instance, burial plots are in such short supply that they have started burying more than one person in a single space.
Now if burying more than one body in a single grave sounds like a strange solution, consider that that has been the procedure at Arlington National Cemetery for many years. If a soldier’s spouse is going to be buried with their loved one, they must be buried in the same grave. And still they are running out of room.
And so this world wide shortage of cemetery space has led to a great emphasis on cremation. 50 years ago, only 4% of those who died in the US were cremated. Now that number is closer to 50%. The estimate is that moving forward – cremations in London alone may reach the 75% range in the next few years, but there is still concern that there will not be enough space for the other 25%.
And this emphasis on cremation has led to some creative ways to preserve the ashes. There are now companies that will turn ashes into paper weights and jewelry and other permanent keepsakes. And I recently read that there are churches that are developing prayer gardens that have mausoleums where ashes of members can be entombed.
Of course, all of this is not a new problem. The Jewish Cemetery on the Mount of Olives is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world with tombs dating back thousands of years. Archaeologists have found layer upon layer of cemeteries stacked on top of one another, corresponding to different centuries and historic eras. And many of the tombs are family tombs that hold multiple bodies. They are tombs that have been carved out of stone with several slabs to accommodate the bodies of every member of the family. Jewish burial customs were that bodies would be washed, prepared with spices and wrapped in linen cloths and laid on one of those slabs. The herbs and spices that were spread over the body had two functions. First they would hasten the decomposition of the body, and secondly they would mask the odor of the decomposition. Then once the decomposition of the body was complete, the bones would be placed in an ossuary or a bone box and pushed to the very back of one of the slabs. That was the kind of tomb that Jesus’s body was placed in. It was the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. And so on Sunday morning, the ladies were on their way to prepare the body for decomposition when they discovered that the tomb was empty. Jesus had figured out a way to deal with cemetery overcrowding. Resurrection.
I recently read a story about a grandmother and her six year old grandson who were taking a walk one day and they decided to take a shortcut through the cemetery. The six year old insisted that they stop and read some of the tombstones. “Why are there dates on the stones,” the boy asked and the Grandmother explained that the first date on the tombstones was the day the person was born and the second date was the day the person died. But then they came to a stone that had two names on it, a husband and a wife. Under the husband’s name there were two dates, but under the wife’s name there was only one date.
“Why does that tombstone only have one date?” The boy asked.
“Because the wife hasn’t died yet,” the grandmother explained.
The boy was obviously confused by his grandmother’s explanation because, that night, he couldn’t stop talking about their walk through the cemetery. “Mommy” he said, “did you know that some of the people buried in the cemetery aren’t even dead yet?”
Now we are amused by that little boy’s apparent misunderstanding, but at second thought perhaps he was expressing a basic understanding that many of us struggle with. You see, for people who believe in resurrection, we spend a lot of time worrying about what happens in cemeteries. We spend a disproportionate amount of time in this life focusing on that second date on our tombstone.
Have you ever wondered what the second date would have been on Jesus’s tombstone? If you think about it, the church has gone to great lengths to establish the first date. Jesus’s birthday. And though throughout time, many historians and Bible Scholars have disputed that date, the date that has stuck is December 25 of the year zero on the Roman calendar. That would have been the first date on Jesus’s tombstone. And every year, for nearly 2000 years, that has been the day that we have celebrated the birth of Jesus. But it seems curious to me that there has not been such a concern to establish the day that Jesus died. When I did a little research on that, I discovered that most scholars aren’t comfortable in pinning the death of Jesus down to a specific day, or even a year, for that matter. The most they are comfortable with is giving a range. Sometime in the Spring of the year (because it’s tied in scripture to the Passover celebration) and sometime between the year 27-35 A.D. And if you think about it, an eight year range is a pretty major issue when talking about a total life of about 33 years. Now the problem is, of course, that we have tied the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to the Jewish feast of the Passover. The Gospel writers make it clear that it was during that festival that Jesus was crucified. But the date of the Passover feast is tied to the cycles of the moon and so the dates change from year to year. Sometimes it’s in March. Sometimes in April. So the result is that Easter varies from year to year, and the second date on the Tombstone, can never be pinned down. When push comes to shove, the best we’ve been able to do is not really a date of death, but just a general acknowledgement that it was during Passover. So if Jesus had a tombstone it might have read: Jesus of Nazareth. Date of Birth – December 25, 0000. Date of Death: Passover. You know, I have sometimes wondered why the early church didn’t establish some arbitrary date for Good Friday and Easter long ago like they did for Christmas. I can tell you from a practical standpoint, it’s a lot easier to plan for the Christmas celebration each year in the church, then it is Good Friday and Easter. There is a sense of permanence about Christmas. Same day every year. In a sense the whole church year points to it. But there are some years, on the other hand, when Passover is particularly early and so it seems like we move right from Christmas into Lent. It would be so much easier if the early church would have said, “Ok, we’re going to celebrate Easter every year on the third Sunday of April, and Good Friday on the third Friday. How simple that would be. That would make our Tombstone so much cleaner. So on the third Sunday of April, the women went to the cemetery to prepare the tombstone. To anoint the body of Jesus for burial. But wait – they were there to anoint a body that wasn’t that wasn’t even dead. You see, even though Good Friday and Easter are distinctly Christian celebrations, theologically they can’t be separated from our Jewish roots. The Cross doesn’t make sense apart from Passover, and the Passover lamb that is slain in atonement for our sins, and the blood of Jesus that covers us so that the Spirit of Death passes over us forever. And the empty tomb, resurrection loses much of it’s power if we try to confine it to one day, one moment in time. The early church wasn’t concerned with assigning a specific date to the Easter celebration, because they celebrated every Sunday as Easter, as the day of resurrection. You see, when the little boy proclaimed to his mother that some of the people buried in the cemetery aren’t dead yet because there is no second date on their tombstone, he had inadvertently hit upon a great truth. Many of those who are buried in the world’s cemeteries aren’t really dead. Easter tells us that for those who follow Jesus into the family tomb, the second date on the tombstone is not the date of their death, but rather the date of their resurrection. And it is futile to try and pin a specific date to the Resurrection, because once Jesus stepped forth from that tomb, resurrection became a daily event. Resurrection is not a one time thing. Not a moment in time – on a Sunday morning on the Mount of Olives – 2000 years ago. It is not the way to overcome death. It is the way to live all of life. Every time God gives us a new lease on life in the midst of the old, we are resurrected. Writer Clint Barnes describes our human condition in terms of the stone that covered the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. In so many instances of life, he says, we come up against such stones that block us and no matter how hard we push, we discover that what lies on the other side, is really death, not life. “Maybe we’ve been pushing against a supervisor who is hard to satisfy, or against the threat of having our job downsized. Or maybe we’re pushing against a marriage that seems destined for the ditch. Or maybe pushing against chronic pain, against depression, against loneliness and grief, or against some other obstacle that is between us and our dreams. Lately, we’ve all been pushing against the anxiety that terrorists will strike again.”
We work so hard to save our lives. We push and push and push, and in the end, Barnes says, “in one of the worst ironies of life,” it seems all that waits on the other side is death. But then we come to Easter Sunday morning and we realize that the stone that we have been pushing against has been rolled away–the stone of our mortality, the stone of our inadequacy, the stone of our impurity. God has given us His divine “Yes!” and suddenly we have a new picture of our lives. That supervisor will not get the best of us, the loss of a job will not destroy us; neither will the loss of a marriage, the loss of a dream or even our failing health. These tragedies that come to us all do not have the power to destroy us because, in Easter, God has given us His “Yes!”
Resurrection brings life to the dead places of our lives. Are there any dead places in your life today? Easter is God’s affirmation that no matter how discouraging life might be – no matter how buried we might feel in this world – we’re not really dead. So come this morning with the women to the empty tomb. And be raised to life in Christ.
And then Easter is our reminder that life is not intended to be memorialized. It is intended to be lived forever. Resurrection is the beginning of life and not the end of it. Our late friend, Elsworth Kalas once wrote that the disciples seemed aimless and confused after Jesus’ resurrection. Some of them even returned to their old job, commercial fishing. What was their problem? Well, according to Kalas, they were viewing the resurrection as the end of the story. Jesus arose from the dead, now what? What does that mean? They didn’t immediately understand that Jesus’ resurrection was really the beginning–the beginning of a new victorious life in Christ. The Second Date on the tombstone, you see, reflects a human tendency to build memorials to the dead, rather than honor the living. If you don’t believe that, take a stroll through the Lexington Cemetery one day and look at all the elaborate memorials that have been erected to honor the dead. But you don’t have to go to a cemetery to be reminded of this. Every time there is a tragic event somewhere in the world a makeshift memorial springs up at the sight. And people bring flowers and stuffed animals and other gifts and write notes, and leave them there for the victims. Or get in your car and drive a little ways on New Circle Road or Man of War Blvd and you’ll come across some memorials that have been erected to persons who died in car accidents at that spot.
In fact, just up from the Alumni interchange on Man O War there is a memorial that was erected nearly twenty years ago. It started as just a cross but down through the years it has been decorated to reflect the season of the year. Christmas decorations in December. Spring flowers for Easter. For all of these years, someone has maintained that as a Memorial to a long deceased loved one.
And down through the years, those types of memorials have become more and more evident along the highways. In fact, in some states they have become so numerous that the state has sought alternatives for families. One state for instance, has banned by law such roadside displays, and as an alternative has established a memorial garden at one of the state’s rest areas. And for every fatality on a state roadway a memorial brick is laid in the garden with the name of the deceased on it, and the second date, the date of death. Other states have begun planting a tree on the roadside where a traffic fatality has taken place to memorialize the life that was lost. Well, as you can imagine these efforts have met with some controversy and the biggest objection at least from the families, is that they have lost control of the way that their loved ones are memorialized. For some of these families, the memorial itself has become bigger than the memory of the life that was lost. And I think that is the problem that many have with the story of Jesus’s resurrection. You see, the empty tomb shows us that resurrected life is not something to be memorialized but rather it is to be lived. You know, I have always wondered why there were no eyewitnesses to the actual resurrection of Jesus. By the time that the women came, it had already happened. The stone was rolled away and Jesus had emerged. Why not wait until the women had arrived, so that they could witness the miracle? It would have been so much easier to explain to the ages. This way even the women struggled to really believe in resurrection. Mary told the Disciples that “They” (was it the Romans who were the “they” or the priests and pharisees or maybe some of the Disciples themselves) – we don’t really know who Mary had in mind – but she was pretty sure that someone had come in the middle of the night and taken Jesus’ body and hidden it. If Jesus had only let her witness the miracle of resurrection, it would have saved a lot of the confusion that has characterized Easter down through the ages. Because, in spite of ourselves, we have made the focus of resurrection the empty tomb. It has become our memorial to the resurrected life of Jesus. Here is a picture of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, a magnificent monument that was supposedly first built around the tomb in which Jesus was placed. But it was not built until the 4th century, some 400 years after the first Easter. And by that time, this location was just one of the locations that were identified by tradition as the possible sight of the tomb. Today there are several places that make claim to be the burial sight of Jesus, including one in Japan. Now, you would have thought that one of the Disciples would have had the presence of mind to realize that history was happening in that empty tomb and so made a note of where it was so that spot could be memorialized for the ages. Unless, of course, the only significance the tomb held for them was that it was empty. They didn’t understand that that tomb was the epicenter of resurrection life and that pilgrims down through the ages would want to come and try to somehow recapture the power that rolled the stone away and called Jesus forth to life. Because, you see, for the Disciples, Resurrection happened when Jesus brought new life to their dying souls. When Jesus offered them the chance to live with Him forever. The empty tomb opened their eyes to the possibility, but for Mary the miracle of Resurrection did not happen until she heard Jesus calling her name in the garden. And for Peter it happened around a campfire several days after the tomb was empty, when he was able to look into the eyes of grace and forgiveness and be restored. And for Thomas it happened when He was able to share in the woundedness of Jesus. And for the Disciples on the road to Emmaus, resurrection came in the breaking of the bread and the remembrance of the Passion. And some years later, the miracle of resurrection happened for the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. You see, God never intended for resurrection to be confined to one place or moment in time. Resurrection happens for us every time God rolls away the barriers from that which entombs us in this world and let’s the fresh air of His Spirit, new life come to us. Resurrected life is not intended to be memorialized with dates on a tombstone or fancy monuments. It is intended to be lived. And so every time we offer others Grace and forgiveness and love in the midst of the dead places of this worldly life, we are witnessing to – we are proclaiming – the resurrected Jesus. We become the monument of a resurrected life. We celebrate Easter.
So John says that Mary ran to the Disciples when she found the tomb empty that morning and said, “Someone has taken Jesus from the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid Him.” But now we know – we know that it was God who took Him from the tomb that morning. And not only that, but we know where He laid Him. Praise God, He laid Him right in the middle of my life and yours, forever and ever.
Hallelujah. He is risen.
Hallelujah. He lives forever
Hallelujah. And because of Easter – so can we.