Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.
5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:1-10, NRSV)
For years now people have been looking for Waldo? Where’s Waldo? As some of you might know, he’s quite difficult to locate. It’s not that he’s lost. In fact, he always seems to know exactly where he’s going. No, Waldo isn’t lost, he’s just lost in the crowd. In fact, he’s always lost in one crowd or another. This is a man who loves to be where the action is.
How many of you have ever spent time searching for Waldo? Any luck? You’d think he’d be easy to find because he dresses like a candy cane. Not so. It took me five minutes to find him on this particular day when he went out to the shipyard. And when I finally did find him I faced the same problem I always face when I’m fortunate enough to find Waldo. I’ve found him, now what do I do with him? There he is, now what? Which then always makes me wonder why I was spending so much time searching for him in the first place? Obviously he doesn’t want to be found because on the very next page he’s gone and gotten himself lost in yet another busy crowd. Maybe we should all just leave Waldo alone.
The other day I came across a spin-off of “Where’s Waldo?” called “Where’s Jesus?”. Have you seen this? Now, if you thought Waldo was hard to find, good luck finding Jesus. For starters, we don’t really know what Jesus looks like. We think we do – beard, long flowing hair, robe and sandals, you get the picture. The problem is that when you’re looking at a scene of a crowd from ancient Palestine, that particular description fits just about every adult male in the crowd. I searched this picture carefully and I found at least 10 guys I thought might be Jesus and I’m not confident any of them is really him. It made me want to go back looking for Waldo.
Early one Sunday morning a long time ago some women got up before daybreak and went out looking to find Jesus. They assumed they knew where he was, assumed he would be exactly where they had left him three days before, dead in a tomb sealed up by a massive stone. When they got to the graveyard, however, a great earthquake began to shake the ground beneath them and an angel appeared before them and rolled back the stone and took a seat on top of it in front of the now open grave. Naturally, the women, along with the guards present that morning, were scared out of their wits.
The angel, however, tells the women not to be afraid. He tells them that he knows they are looking for Jesus. “He is not here,” the angel says. “He has been raised from the dead and is going on ahead of you to Galilee where you will see him for yourselves.”
As I reflected on this passage this week it was that one line that I couldn’t get out of my mind. “Jesus is not here but has been raised from the dead and has gone on ahead of you.” The more I thought about this line the more I became convinced that these words, first spoken by the angel to the women outside the empty tomb that first Easter morning are words that have reverberated across time and space right down through history to us in this time and in this place.
He is risen! He is risen indeed! It is this claim which has led people to gather in churches like this one all around the world today. Many of you believe it’s true. Some of you, I suspect, do not. Either way, I’m glad you’re here to at least consider this claim. The scriptures testify, and the church has long since agreed, that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, was killed on a cross and laid dead in a tomb on a Friday evening but rose from the dead that following Sunday morning and is, all these years later, as alive as ever. This is the claim of Easter and if it is false, then everything the Christian faith stands for must be utterly disregarded. But what if the claim is true?
One of the characters in the Flannery O’Conner short story A Good Man is Hard to Find explains the earth-shattering declaration of the resurrection this way: “Jesus threw everything off balance. If he did what he said then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow him, but if he didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can.”
When you ask the question “Where’s Jesus?” the first thing you must consider is whether or not he’s actually still alive. You see, most everybody agrees that Jesus was once alive. The historical record is too overwhelming to deny. Not everybody, however, agrees that he’s still alive. I would suggest to you that it’s a question well worth considering.
Turning back to the story, understand that by telling the women Jesus is risen the angel is telling them where Jesus is not. “He is not here,” the angel says. “If you’re looking for Jesus you don’t need to look here because the grave is empty.”
If the women were not so dumbstruck with fear and wonder, they probably would have asked the question that certainly must have been on their minds. “So where is he? Where is Jesus? If he’s not here, then where did he go?” They don’t have to ask. The angel knows they are wondering. So he tells them, “Go quickly and tell his disciples that he has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee where you will see him for yourselves.”
So where’s Jesus? Apparently he’s gone on ahead to Galilee. Now, as a reminder this whole scene takes place just outside Jerusalem. Galilee, the region where Jesus and most of his followers were originally from, was 100 miles to the north way out in the sticks. Galilee was an insignificant back-water region, not the place most people would think of going to look for the risen Messiah.
There’s a lesson here if we have ears to hear it. You see, one might expect that immediately after Jesus rose from the dead he went straight back up to heaven. He did not. If he had, the message to his followers would have been clear. Where do you find Jesus? In heaven. How do you get to Jesus? You have to die. And if you believe in Jesus, if you trust him with your life, some day after you die you will go yourself to be with him where he is. That means this life in the meantime is a bit like the hospice wing of a nursing home, filled only with people who are waiting to die so they can go see Jesus in what they imagine will be a better place.
Now, do not misunderstand me. Jesus did eventually ascend to heaven. And part of the Easter message is that if we trust in Christ, death will not have the final say in our lives. There is life after death, life with God in heaven far better than even the most imaginative among you can come up with. All that is true. What’s also true, however, is that heaven is not the first place we find the risen Jesus.
One also might expect to hear that after he rose from the dead Jesus went straight to some holy place like the Temple. That might have been where I would have gone if I were Jesus? The JerusalemTemple was the absolute center of the Jewish world in those days, the place where Jews believed the very presence of God dwelled. Wouldn’t that have been the natural place for Jesus to go first?
Jesus, however, did not go to the Temple, or to any other religious site. If he had, the message to this followers would have been clear. Where do you find Jesus? In the religious places on this earth. That’s where Jesus likes to hang out. Jesus prefers temples to taverns, sanctuaries to shopping centers. He’d prefer to live in Jerusalem or Bethlehem, rather than in Johannesburg or Bakersfield. Given the choice, Jesus prefers to surround himself with incense, and candles, and pipe organs, and stained glass. In a word, if you really want to find Jesus the church is where you want to go.
Now, do not misunderstand me. Jesus spent a lot of time in the Temple and other religious places. In this respect he was as faithful a Jew as there ever was. And I believe the risen Jesus still spends plenty of time in church buildings, especially when his people gather there to worship him, or study his teachings, or talk with him about what he wants them to do. Of course, if you want to find Jesus then a really good place to find him is in a church building filled with people who love him. Just know that that’s not the only place to find him. In fact, church buildings might not even be where Jesus spends most of his time.
The fact that the first place Jesus goes after his resurrection is Galilee is more than just an interesting piece of trivia. Some of you remember how the story goes. The women do go and tell the disciples what the angel told them. Then the disciples do go to Galilee and they, in fact, meet Jesus there, not only once but several times. In a house, on a road, at the beach, in several places they meet the risen Jesus in the flesh.
In one of their meetings Jesus tells them he is going up a mountain ahead of them where he wants them to go and meet him. So they go up the mountain and there he is, just like he said he would be. It’s on that mountain that Jesus ascends to heaven. But before he goes he tells his disciples that he will once again go on ahead of them, this time in the form of the Holy Spirit, to Jerusalem and they are to meet him there. There he will fill them with the Holy Spirit and send them out into the world, to all nations, to spread the good news of his resurrection to anybody who will listen. At that point Jesus speaks his final words on earth. Before he ascends to heaven Jesus says to his disciples, then and now, “As you go out in the world remember that I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” It was another way of saying yet again, “I will go out ahead of you into the world and will meet you when you get there.”
I hope you’re starting to see the pattern. Christians are following somebody very, very different. You see, most everybody you know is following somebody. Some people follow Buddha or Mohammad. Other people pattern their lives after the teachings of somebody like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. or some celebrity they admire. Some people choose as their model somebody they know personally, a parent, a grandparent, a mentor, a teacher. Even if that person is dead you can still follow them because their words, their teachings, still live on. If you are a follower of Buddha, for example, you have his teaching and therefore you are always considering what Buddha would do or say in this or that situation so that you can do or say the same thing. This can be a very helpful way to live. It is, however, nothing like what happens when a person follows Jesus. For it is not only Jesus’ teaching which have been left behind but the risen Jesus himself who is still with us!
Here is something I hope you can understand. Christians actually believe that Jesus is alive, and not just alive way up in heaven and not just alive locked up in some church somewhere. Christians believe that the risen Jesus is, by the presence of his Spirit, with us wherever we go, out in the world in all sorts of places many people never imagine Jesus would ever go. Why? Because when Jesus died on the cross and then rose from the dead, he didn’t just die and rise for some people but for all people. Furthermore, Jesus didn’t just die for people in the world but rather for the whole world itself. Christ died to redeem all of creation. That’s a fancy way of saying that because of human sin all of creation was broken, ruined, dying, corrupt, and so out of love Jesus, the Son of God, entered into the brokenness and death of creation and took it all upon himself on the cross so that creation could once again become what God had always intended it to become, possessing abundant and everlasting life.
So where is Jesus? From the very morning of the resurrection the scriptures make clear that Jesus is out in every corner of the world working to bring this redemption into all its fullness. But he is not out there alone. In fact, Christ calls us, just as he called his first followers, to go out to meet him where he already is and to join him in what it is he is already doing. The fancy religious word for this is mission, and it something to which every Christian is called to give his or her life.
All this got me thinking this week about a short reflection somebody in this church gave me a while back by a writer named Eugene Peterson. The title of his September 18th entry in his daily devotion called Living the Message is “The Risen Christ.” When I first read what he wrote there I knew it would always stick with me. He begins,
In every visit, every meeting I attend, every appointment I keep, I have been anticipated. The risen Christ goes there ahead of me. The risen Christ is in that room already. What is he doing? What is he saying? What is going on?
I have to confess to you that when I first read his words I immediately realized that this is not always the way I live my life. I’m a Christian pastor. I believe Jesus truly did rise from the dead and is alive today. I would bet my whole life on the truth of this claim. And I believe that Jesus is in heaven with his Father. And I often look for Jesus at churches like this one where I have experienced his presence many times. All that being said, I too often fail to believe that Jesus has left heaven and left the church and gone on ahead of me to Galilee, that he’s out waiting to meet me every place I ever could go. I suppose I have always believed that perhaps I could bring Jesus to those sorts of places but I certainly haven’t always believed that he was already there waiting and working before I ever showed up.
Here’s an example. I go to a lot of hospitals to visit people who are sick or dying, or people who are sitting beside the bedside of somebody who is sick or dying. Years ago I made it a habit to pray as I rode the elevator or climbed the stairs to find the room of the person I was there to visit. Typically I would pray something like this, “Lord, I pray that I can go and bring your presence to these people. Help me speak the words you want me to speak to them. As I go into that room, make your presence known to them, your healing and gracious presence.” Though I wouldn’t have put it to you this way, I actually believed that somehow I was bringing the presence of Christ into that hospital room. And in my defense, many of the people I visited thought something along the same lines. You know how it is, when the pastor walks in it’s time to focus our attention on God.
I don’t pray that way anymore in hospital elevators. Thankfully, I am learning that Jesus has been in that hospital room long before I ever showed up and he is there even when I don’t show up. Now, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want me and others to show up. He does. As you may know, Christ’s preferred way of working in this world is through his followers. As the Bible puts it, we are his hands, his feet, his ears, his voice. But he is always there first, always at work first. And so, as Eugene Peterson would put it, when I walk into that hospital room I am not so much wondering what I will do or what I will say but instead I enter simply trying to make myself alert to what the risen and present Christ has already been doing and is already saying to draw the people in that room nearer to the abundant, eternal life he has in store for all of them. My task, you see, is simply to join in and, in doing so, find myself drawn nearer as well.
If you are a person who does not yet believe that Jesus truly has been raised from the dead then that is where you are going to have to start. For you, that’s the most important question you have to work out. When you do, if you do, it will change everything for you. By God’s grace will come to see, as I am coming to see, that no matter where you are led in life Jesus has already gone on ahead of you and you will find him there when you arrive. Once you realize this, you will go out just as the women went out from the tomb that day, filled with fear and joy all at the same time.
You see, the person who goes out to meet the risen Christ goes out filled with a reverent fear. You go to meet the Holy God of the universe, the creator of all that is. He has sacrificed everything for us and now, in return, expects everything from us. The person who goes to meet the risen Christ and is not filled with fear is the person who has failed to understand exactly who it is he is going to meet.
There is not only fear, however. There is joy as well. For if Christ has truly risen from the grave, altogether conquered sin and death, and has now gone ahead of you to meet you every place you will ever go, how can you not be filled with joy? What is it in your future that you fear? In Christ, you do not have to fear that thing, that place, that person, that possibility, for Christ will get there first. You will never arrive alone. If you have faith in him, then even when you die you will find that Christ is there in the grave to meet you. And beyond that you will find that he has gone ahead of you from the grave into life where he has promised he will also meet you.
I would not be doing my job this morning if I did not ask you if you believe this is true. So do you? Whether you expected him to be or not, the risen Christ was here in this place this morning before you showed up waiting for you to arrive. In this place he has something to show you, something to say to you. When you gather with your family this afternoon, whether you are looking forward to that experience or not, the risen Christ will be there waiting to meet you. At work or at school, in the waiting room of a hospital or the line at the grocery store, in the early morning hours or the middle of the afternoon, wherever you go and whenever you find yourself there, the risen Christ is always a step ahead of you waiting for you to come with fear and joy to listen, and watch, and learn, and trust, and follow, and obey, and rest, and serve, and live.
Of course, there is no guarantee you will notice him when you get there, for Christ is often ignored. By most people in most places Christ is ignored. Like Waldo, he blends right into the crowd. But for those with faith, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, he is there. The women went from the tomb full of fear and joy and Christ, we’re told, appeared to them suddenly. That’s how it works. The living Christ will meet us suddenly and unexpectedly, at times and in places we might never before have imagined we’d meet him. And when he does he will greet us, and tell us not to be afraid, and invite us to join him in the eternal work that he is doing.
By the way, let me point out to you that the first Easter was actually on a Monday. At least it was the Jewish version of Monday. You see, back then the Sabbath was Saturday. Saturday was the day everybody expected to go the Temple and worship and meet God. Sunday back then was not a day for church, or football, or family BBQs. Sunday was the day you went back to work. Sunday back then was Monday. Monday was the day Jesus rose from the dead.
Now, I truly hope that in some way you have experienced the presence of the risen Christ here this Sunday morning in church. But I also hope that you will experience the risen Christ just as powerfully tomorrow morning, Monday morning, wherever it is you happen to find yourself. For he is not only here; he is risen and has gone on ahead of you and, if you have the faith to expect it, he will meet you when you get there.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Matthew 28:1-10. What is the most remarkable part of this resurrection account?
Do you believe that Jesus is literally risen from the dead and alive today? If so, why does it matter?
Why do you think that Jesus gave instructions through the angel to the disciples to go and meet him in Galilee where he was waiting instead of going himself to meet them where they already were at the time in Jerusalem? Wouldn’t that have been more efficient?
Do you think Jesus is hard to find or easy to find in this world?
Where’s Jesus? Think about a time when you believe you have experienced the presence of the risen Christ in your life? Did you expect it?
Do you think Jesus is more present in certain times and places than others? (Like Sunday mornings in churches, for example?) Why or why not?
Where are you going to be tomorrow morning? When you go there, will you go with a strong expectation that Jesus is already there and an alertness to listen for what he is saying, and to watch for what he is doing?
Do you go along in life with a constant fear and joy that comes from an awareness of the nearby presence of the risen Christ?
 Cited by J.R. Daniel Kirk, “A Resurrection that Matters”, Christianity Today (April, 2010), p. 39.
 Matthew 28:20.
 I’m indebted to Dale Bruner for this idea. Matthew: A Commentary, Volume II, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 788.
 It’s a good thing because as revolutionary as his teachings are, there is no way anybody can even begin to follow them unless Christ himself is present and providing grace and power every single moment along the way.
 Eugene Peterson, Living the Message, (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), p. 259
 See Paul’s exhortation on the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12.