In his little book The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: “It is not good to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you happen to live near one.” This Easter, celebrated in homes instead of a churches, not in our Easter finest but maybe our pajamas, standing six feet apart if we gathered instead of seated six inches nearby, some of us might be thinking that we left a dragon out of our calculations.
Some of us we’re planning on making college visits this spring and summer. But our plans were upended. There was a dragon left out of our calulations. Others were planning on a college graduation. But our plans were upended. There was a dragon left out of our calculations. Some of us had plans to get away. Others were planning a wedding. Some of us were just planning to go to the beach. But there was a dragon left out of our calculations. Not only our plans, but our whole lives seem to have been upended by this thing, invisible to the naked eye, that nevertheless brings such enormous devastation.
What does it mean to celebrate Easter season mean during a time like this? That’s what I’d like to speak with you about. I’ll be using John’s account of the first Easter Sunday.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
On the first Easter, the disciples’ plans were upended as well. Here is a woman named Mary Magdalene. She is a friend and follower of Jesus. What is her plan the first Easter Sunday, 2000 years ago? She’s not going to celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin, death, hell and the devil. She’s going to a grave to visit a dead man. But the dead man wasn’t where she left him.
Two disciples, Peter and John, rush to the tomb to see what has happened. They see that the tomb is empty. The grave clothes, seventy lbs of linen that the dead were traditionally wrapped in, are lying neatly folded on the ground. Our reading tells us that “they did not understand” and that they went home confused.
This tells you something really important about the first Easter. The friends and followers of Jesus didn’t go to Jesus’s grave because they believed he would be alive. They went to the grave because they knew he was dead. They had planned for the dragon. And after all the terrors of the previous Friday, the arrest, suffering, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, the dragon was something they weren’t about to leave out of their calculations. They had seen their friend devoured by the great dragon, Death, just days earlier. They’re not looking for a fairy tale ending, or even a faith filled miracle. They’re looking for the body of they’re friend, who has vanished. They’re distraught and confused.
Everyone leaves except Mary, who is too upset to leave. She stands at the graveside, weeping. A man stands behind her. She assumes it’s the caretaker of the cemetery. Perhaps she’s turned away from him, or her eyes are too teary for her to see through them. She accuses him of stealing the body. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.”
But this man is not the caretaker. He speaks, “Mary.” She’s heard the voice before. She knows who it is before she even turns around. When my wife and I lived in England, shortly after we were married, we used to walk through a meadow that was a public grazing field for sheep and cattle. Sheep from many different shepherds gathered together in the meadow. At the end of the day, shepherds would take turns calling their sheep. Heads would raise from the flock, then maybe a dozen sheep would leave the flock, line up, and walk towards their shepherd. They knew his voice and understood his call. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, and he said that his sheep knew his voice. When Mary hears her name called, she doesn’t have to turn around to know who it is. She knows her shepherds voice. Not merely against all odds, but against the natural course of the world as we know it, against the laws of life and death, Jesus, the man crucified on Friday, stands before Mary alive and well on Sunday. He speaks her name.
We never leave the dragon out of our calculations. This particular disease might have caught us by surprise, but death never does. It is an inevitable, interminable, unrelenting foe that stands at the edge of our lives looming over us and our loved ones. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all plan to be devoured by it. But on Easter, this plan, the plan of death, the plan we never talk about, gets upended. Jesus was devoured on Friday. He was raised on Sunday.
What does it mean? It means that the Great Dragon Death should not have left Easter out of its equations when it lived so nearby. Death’s plans have been upended and thrown into chaos by a man named Jesus. He was raised on that first Easter. He still lives today. He can give you life as well.
How might we go about applying this? Let’s begin with those of you who have faith in Jesus. First, understand that God was at work on that first Easter, though it was very hard to see. Something terrible happened on Friday, and everyone expects that terrible thing to continue on into Sunday. But God was at work. They just couldn’t see it. It took Mary hours to see what God had done. It took Peter and James all day. One man, named Thomas, didn’t see what God had done for a whole week. God was at work during that difficult time, it was just very hard to see. God is at work during this very difficult time as well. It’s o.k. if you can’t see it. Easter gives you the confidence to believe that God is at work during difficult times and permission to keep your eyes peeled.
And second important thing we can take from the first Easter is that the victory of Jesus over death gives us permission to take risks during times of danger. When the plagues swept through Rome, many Christians stayed behind in the city to care for the sick and dying. Why? Because the Christians had learned death did not have the last word. Jesus did. Unafraid of death, they stayed behind to care for those in need. We may not be called to this kind of work, though many doctors and nurses are finding courage to do the work through their faith in Jesus and his resurrection. You may be called to something else, but knowledge of the victory over death should give us courage to take risks for the sake of love and compassion.
Finally, for those of you that are not ready to put your faith in Jesus, there is something for you to learn from this as well. If you have hard time believing in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, you’re in good company. Not one of Jesus’s friends and followers believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead when they first heard it. They had to go investigate for themselves. This is something you can do. There are a variety of ways you could do it, but a good way to begin is by reading about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for yourself by reading one of the stories written by people who knew him. You could read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Don’t rely on someone else to tell you what these say. Find out for yourself. Investigate, just like the disciples did on the very first Easter.