Anyone who has ever taken a class in physics may remember Newton’s laws of motion. Even if you’ve never taken physics or specifically had to memorize Newton’s laws, you’re probably familiar with the basics. One law is the simple observation that an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless some outside force acts on it to get it moving. It’s called inertia. However, once an object gets pushed, were it not for friction and its sapping that object of energy, the now-moving thing will keep on moving in a straight line until some other force stops it. That’s why in outer space, where there is no friction, if you threw a baseball at 45 MPH, that ball will keep on traveling at that same speed potentially forever. It would have to hit something or get sucked in by a planet’s gravity or else it will just keep zooming along at 45 MPH.
The Easter events we remember today took place nearly seventeen centuries before Isaac Newton did his work and formulated his laws of motion. But the gospels show us that on that first day of the week long ago, the women who trekked over to Jesus’ tomb already knew all about inertia. They knew that the big stone covering the entrance to the tomb was not going to go anywhere unless an outside force acted on it. The question was whether those women had enough brawn to move the stone themselves. But with the exception of Matthew’s gospel, we are told that this question soon became moot: by the time the women arrived, the stone had already been shoved aside by somebody else.
Matthew alone, however, depicts for us precisely what outside force acted on the stone to move it off its inertial dead center: an angel came down from heaven and moved the stone aside before sitting on it as though it were a park bench. And we already know all the other details: the angel was dazzling and bright and fearsome-looking. He scared those strapping Roman guards silly—in fact, they fainted dead away. The women might well have followed suit had the angel not taken pains to address them tenderly as quickly as possible. We also know that the angel tells them that Jesus is not there, that he has been raised, and that the disciples could catch up with him in Galilee.
But in reading Matthew 28, I was struck by two things. First, there is that big earthquake Matthew mentions in verse 2. Matthew says that this quake happened because the angel came down. But that can’t be the only reason. Angels pop in and out of the pages of the Bible with some frequency in both the Old and New Testaments. Luke in particular has angels all over the place in especially the early part of his gospel. But never once do you read that violent earthquakes were an automatic occurrence whenever an angel comes down. In fact, I don’t know of any other major incident in the Bible that associates an earthquake with the descent of an angel.
So I want to think about that in a moment. But the second thing to notice here is this: we all know that the angel rolled the stone away. But have you ever observed that moving the stone was not so as to let Jesus out? In our imagination, I think we have assumed that rolling the stone away served the same purpose as opening your front door at the end of a dinner party: you open the door to let your guests out so they can go home. So also the angel rolled the stone away to let Jesus out of a tomb he no longer needed.
But that’s not what Matthew shows us at all. Jesus is already gone before the stone gets shoved aside by the angel. Rolling the stone away was not designed to let Jesus out but to let the women and the disciples in! Opening the tomb was meant to show the women that it was already empty, that the grave clothes were still there but with no corpse to wrap up anymore. The angel famously tells the women “He is not here,” but from the looks of Matthew’s narrative, that was true well before the angel moved the entrance stone. Moving the stone aside revealed the miracle, it didn’t make way for it.
Now you may or may not find this to be an interesting observation from the text. But whether you do or don’t find this curious, the question remains: “So what?” Does this make much of a difference about much of anything? Well, I think it just may, and I’d like to spend a few minutes telling you why.
To begin, we go back to that earthquake. Matthew makes it look like the mere presence of that angel is what set the earth to rocking, but it looks like something far greater is behind that quake. I think that seismic shock was the result of the future’s crashing into a past moment. This was a temporal collision, a head-on crash of the future with that first Easter morning. Scientists theorize that despite the great fun that science fiction writers have had with the concept, the fact is that time travel is impossible. It is impossible literally to travel either forward into the future or backward into the past.
However, it has been established that time moves more slowly for you the faster you travel. Without getting too technical, suffice it to say that if you were traveling on a spaceship at a very high rate of speed—say somewhere approaching the speed of light—what would seem to you to be a three-year trip around the solar system would actually be about 100 years here on earth. So you’d take off in your ship, make your journey, and you’d return only three years older than when you had departed. But you’d return to an earth where everyone you knew had long since died of old age.
Because we know this is true, some have thought that if you could actually travel faster than the speed of light, maybe time would not only slow down, maybe it would actually go backwards. If that were possible, maybe you could take a year-long faster-than-light trip in a spaceship only to arrive back on earth at some time in history earlier than the date of your blasting off in your rocket! So far as we know, however, nothing can travel faster than light and so even this theoretical form of time travel would be impossible. But scientists suspect that if time travel were possible, it would quite possibly destroy the fabric of existence. If a person from the year 2080 could somehow appear right now at this moment, it’s possible that such a collision of future and present would be like mixing gasoline with fire: the results could be explosive!
Yet by God’s power and grace, something like that did happen on that first Easter morning nearly 2,000 years ago. What caused the earthquake? It was nothing so simple as the appearance of an angel. The Bible tells us angels come and go without there being such dramatic events as earthquakes necessarily happening. What made the earth shudder was a collision between the future and the present. And what should cause our hearts to quake even yet this very morning is that what we are fundamentally doing in this worship service is recalling Jesus as “the remembrance of things hoped for.” That is to say, we are looking back into a distant past that turns out to be all about the future. Your future, my future, our future, the world’s future: it was all on display on a long-ago day in Palestine. Here is a case where we really do go “back to the future!”
But that’s also why the rolling away of the stone was not to let Jesus out of the tomb but rather to show the rest of us that he was already gone. Jesus did not have to wait for an angel to roll the stone away for him to leave the tomb. And the reason is because the resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord is not about some resuscitation of a dead body. Unlike all the people Jesus raised from the dead in the course of his ministry, what happened to Jesus’ body in the miracle of the resurrection was far more than oxygen returning to depleted lungs, far more than electrical activity re-starting in a motionless heart and a cold brain. The people Jesus raised to life died again because they remained mortal.
When Christ was raised by the power of God, he was raised to immortality with a body suited for that new kind of life in the kingdom of God. That’s why he was able to be at once undeniably physical after his resurrection (eating fish, having warm flesh, casting a shadow) and yet undeniably different, too. He was at once recognizable and yet just different enough that we have all those stories of the women and the disciples at first not realizing who he was. He was at once able to pull up a chair and join the disciples for dinner and yet could pass in and out of locked rooms without ever touching a doorknob. He was alive but in a way far more substantial—and just so, far more wonderful—than if his heavenly Father had performed some advanced form of CPR on his corpse on that first Easter morning.
That’s why the ground shook and that’s why Jesus was not stymied by the inertia of a heavy stone that could not be moved from the inside of the tomb. The angel rolled the stone away not to let Jesus out but to let our future burst in. Or better said, the angel moved the stone to demonstrate that the future was now. “He is not here,” the angel said. But he could just as well have also said, “He is not now,” because Jesus was our future, bursting into a past moment, and so giving the world a kind of out-of-time sneak preview of what awaits all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.
In the past 200 or so years, theologians have debated the historical nature of the resurrection. Some have even invented some new terms that seem calculated to lend an air of sophistication to Easter so that the theologians who wield those terms won’t be lumped into some group of naïve bumpkins who don’t realize that modern-day people shouldn’t believe in miracles anymore. For some such people, if you ask them “Do you think Jesus’ rising from the dead was historical?” they will reply, “What do you mean by ‘historical’?” Some such talk seems like a dodge, a ploy to avoid answering straightforward questions. But behind some of this rhetoric are those who say that although that first Easter Sunday is historical in the sense that it happened on a definable date on a real calendar, in a wider sense it was an out-of-history event because ordinarily history can’t contain in the past what is essentially an event still to come in the future.
But wasn’t that always the mystery of our Lord? Wasn’t he always in the world but bigger than the whole world, too? Even as a still-microscopic zygote within Mary’s uterus, Jesus as God’s eternal Son contained the very power of God in ways that burst our abilities to comprehend it all. So also in his resurrection: it happened that morning that Matthew tells us about and yet it represents the appearance of nothing less than the cosmic future of us all.
When you go home this Easter Sunday, you can look at your kitchen calendar for the month. If you do, you’ll see an array of little numbered boxes, each box representing one day of this month. One of those days will also be labeled “Easter.” I don’t know just what calendars looked like back in Jesus’ time, but that first day of the week that Matthew mentions in verse 1 was, on the face of it, just another day. Just another little box on the calendar. Yet something happened that morning—something so galactic and world-shattering that it bursts the temporal boundaries of what one day could ordinarily contain. The entire future of the kingdom of God somehow got stuffed inside that little box on the calendar!
You wouldn’t think such a thing could be possible. It would be like trying to fit a real 18-wheel semi-truck inside your child’s Matchbox car carrying case next to the toy trucks. Real trucks can’t fit inside a case made for miniatures. Yet precisely this happened on the day we celebrate this morning. Something of the grand glory of the new life we all look forward to enjoying with our God into all eternity managed to fit inside just another day in the history books. When you think of it that way, it’s amazing that there was only a violent earthquake! It’s a wonder the whole planet didn’t split asunder!
There is no more eloquent a statement of our Christian hope than this. We believe that we will live in renewed bodies in the splendid kingdom of our Father. And we believe this in no small measure because the future reality of that has already appeared in the past. It is possible because it already happened! It will be real because it has already been real through Christ Jesus the Lord.
An object at rest tends to stay at rest unless some outside force acts on it. But if enough energy gets exerted onto something, it will take off and keep on moving in a straight line forever. On that Easter morning long ago, Jesus’ corpse was a fine example of inertia. It wasn’t going anywhere on its own. But even before the angel rolled the stone away, our heavenly Father exerted an eternal force of glory on the body of our Lord. It made that body new. It made that resurrected Lord and Savior hurtle clean out of that tomb even before somebody opened the front door. Ever since, and even forevermore, that Jesus has been soaring in a straight line that leads into the bright riches of God’s kingdom.
All of us who understand the mystery of our future hope having appeared already in our collective past have attached ourselves to this Lord’s program. By the Holy Spirit, our dead spirits, our hearts so full of the inertia of sin, have been acted on and now follow this Jesus into all that he has promised for us. We’re on the move and there is no force in the universe that can stop our forward momentum! That is the good news of Easter! All that we hold on faith will be true because it has already been true.
Or as Charles Wesley’s wonderful hymn put it, “Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted Head. Made like him, like him we rise, Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.” Alleluia and Amen!
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Easter: Soar We Now