I have attended a sunrise service every Easter since I was a little kid, nearly 35 years. As a kid, I loved the sunrise service because it meant that we would go to a shorter service and skip Sunday school. Funny how on Christianity’s highest holy day, I looked for ways to NOT go to church.
As a teen, I loved the sunrise service because I’d meet my friends there and we’d go out to breakfast afterward… again, skipping the rest of church.
As I became a young adult, sunrise service reflected where I was in my faith. I’d come to the service because it was different and more interesting than a regular Sunday service, as I was looking for the next “cool” thing to do in my faith. It also met me right where I was; the service was informal, short, and required little interaction with other people.
As I have grown older, the sunrise service has evolved for me to be something more metaphorical. I come to the sunrise service so that I can put myself in the place of those early witnesses of the empty tomb. Maybe I’ll notice something more about the Easter story by walking in the sandals of those early women who trudged their way up early in the morning after the Sabbath to a cemetery, exactly where we’ve decided to gather this morning.
Over the years, I’ve attended services in all weather, including snow and rain; services led by different groups in the church; services that re-enact that early morning through drama; services where several local denominations came together to worship as one community; and services where there were just a few of us. One of the most unique sunrise services occurred in a cemetery on top of a hill and on that particular morning the fog had started to roll in. To begin the service, we could hear a bagpipe faintly in the foggy distance playing Amazing Grace. Slowly over the next ten minutes, the bagpipe player marched through the fog toward us. The music grew louder and louder until he was right there among us! It was quite a way to announce the risen Jesus!
In looking back to the more than 30 or so sunrise services I’ve attended, something strikes me as odd. Not one time did I ever come expecting to see a dead Jesus! I had come expecting short services, boring sermons, tired legs, even homemade breakfasts…but never had I ever expected Jesus to still be dead. But that is exactly what those women expected 2000 years ago. That’s hard for us to really understand because we all know the rest of the story. But for those ladies, they came expecting one thing… death.
Matthew records that Mary Magdalene and Mary saw Joseph of Arimethea lay Jesus body in the tomb and roll a big stone over the entrance (v. 27:61). The women returned home to prepare the burial spices and ointments, but their work was delayed because of the Sabbath. The Gospel of John notes that Nicodemus and Joseph had anointed the Lord’s body, but it was done in haste, and was not satisfactory enough for these ladies. They had to return to take care of some unfinished business.
Thus, as soon as they could following the Sabbath, they left their homes early in the morning and went to a cemetery. One must admire the devotion and courage of these ladies. They must have loved him! Despite their overwhelming grief, he must have a proper burial. It was the least they could do. They were courageous in what they did. They did not fear the darkness, nor did they fear being identified with Christ. They brought with them spices and ointments to prepare the body, to lay Jesus to rest. But they also brought their sorrow, their pain, their hurts, and their sadness.
What did you bring with you this Easter morning? What are your sorrows, your pains, your sadness, your anxieties, your fears…your hopes? What are you carrying with you that weighs you down? A cemetery is an appropriate place to bring these things. Maybe we can lay them to rest…once and for all.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came expecting a dead Jesus and they were weighed down with grief. Imagine their reaction as they felt the rumble of the earth beneath them and seeing an angel rolling back the stone. They had seen lots of things with Jesus, but nothing like this! But they still did not know what was going on until the angel spoke, “Jesus is not here…he has been raised as he said…he has been raised from the dead.”
Imagine their confusion. Is it possible? Could it be true? Imagine the swelling of hope in the hearts when the angel spoke what must have been the most beautiful words to them, “you will see him again!”
With joy abounding, they run from the tomb to tell the disciples. The surprises keep coming as Jesus himself suddenly appears to them! How do they respond? Fully overwhelmed, they drop to his feet and worship him.
I wonder what that kind of worship looks like? I can only imagine the uncontrollable joy, all-consuming hope, overpowering relief, and overriding sense of love that must have overtook their hearts! They came expecting nothing, but gained everything. They came expecting death, but gained life. They came expecting an end, but gained a beginning. They came expecting defeat, but gained victory. They came expecting a dead body, but gained a risen savior!
Then Jesus said something very important, he told them “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” He gave them a mission.
They were transformed. Jesus has a funny way of doing that, transforming things, transforming people, and transforming you and me.
They came as mourners, but left as missionaries. They were witnesses that became ambassadors. They took their funeral spices and he turned them into a message. They left on a mission. It’s amazing how God can transform our expectations.
So, why are you here? What do you expect? The empty tomb represents a transformation, a calling, and a mission. We may have come here expecting nothing, thinking of ourselves, and hoping for breakfast. But if we let ourselves see the risen Jesus, if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the fact that Jesus who once was dead is now alive; if we fall at his feet and worship him with all that we are then we too will hear the mission that God is sending each of us to go and tell. Jesus is alive… and you too will see him.