I don’t know about you, but I like presents to be a surprise. Whether it’s Christmas or birthday or anniversary, I don’t want to know what I’m going to get. To me it takes all the joy out of it if you have to tell someone what you want, or they try to get you to drop hints – there’s no excitement in receiving a present if you already know what it is because it’s what you asked for! The first Easter was a great surprise. The women did not go to the tomb to experience the resurrection. They went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. When they arrived at the tomb, they found the stone rolled away and the body gone. They certainly didn’t get what they were expecting!
However, at first, the surprise left them far from joyful – it left them puzzled and perplexed! They did not know what to think. They had come expecting to find one thing only to find the opposite. When they found the body missing, they did not assume resurrection. They did not leap to the conclusion that Jesus was alive. They were not overjoyed. Matthew tells how an angel appears – his appearance like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. And he says to the women: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead …'”
And then, running to tell the others, they see Jesus, who says: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
John tells it a little differently. The women find the tomb empty, and run to tell the others. Then Mary Magdalene encounters someone she believes to be the gardener – and only slowly does the reality dawn upon her.
Finally, one by one, the women and they other disciples were surprised. They encountered that which they never expected – Jesus, alive.
Don’t you wish that you could be surprised this Easter! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be amazed again! Easter doesn’t surprise us any more. We know that Easter is coming. We see it approaching on our calendars; we plan for it. It does not surprise us. Not only do we know it is coming, we know – or think we know! – what it means and what to expect. We know the hymns that we will sing and the sermon that we will hear. Last Easter blends in with the Easter before. Easter has lost its surprise! Unlike the disciples, unlike Mary Magdalene and the other women, we are no longer surprised by the appearance of a risen Jesus in our midst!
Even Easter eggs are no longer the surprise that they used to be when I was young. They’ve been in the shops for so long that weeks ago there were eggs being sold with sell-by and eat-by dates that were before Easter Day! Which rather defeats the point, doesn’t it, and takes away some of the joy of Easter itself if you’ve been eating you eggs during Lent! Or you get to Easter and are given an out of date egg!
The egg, of course, is a symbol of the resurrection. It’s a symbol of life. The chick is trapped inside, just as Jesus’ was trapped inside the tomb – at least, if it’s a fertilized egg. But then, at the right time, the chick emerges from the egg, full of life and promise –– just as Jesus, at the right time, emerged from the tomb, full of life and promise. And so Christians have celebrated Easter with decorated eggs for centuries. So we still distribute eggs at Easter as a surprise, though given how long they have been on sale there’s little surprise left in recieving an egg these days since many will have been eating them for weeks.
But perhaps we also can recover the surprise of Easter. We live in a world that calls us to believe in self and science. We must swim against the stream to believe in God and faith. Many find it particularly difficult to believe in resurrection. Resurrection seems such a peculiar idea. How can we believe in the resurrection in an age of unbelief? It is not easy! But perhaps the difficulty of that can prepare us to recover the surprise of Easter. Perhaps we can break through the routine of Easter and rediscover what the women felt when they found the empty tomb.
A woman called Laura once said, and I wish I could remember where I read this: “Let us live as Easter Christians in a Good Friday world!”
That might not seem that earth-shattering a thing to say. But to really appreciate Laura’s remark, you need to know that she battles serious illness every day. She doesn’t have an easy life. She clearly lives in a Good Friday world, but she is an Easter Christian whose Easter faith helps her to transcend the difficulties of her Good Friday life. We spend much of our lives in a Good Friday world. Good Friday was a day of death –– of dashed hopes –– of crushed beliefs. Good Friday was a day when everything went wrong. On Good Friday, nobody said, “Thank God it’s Friday.” On Good Friday, nobody gave thanks for anything. We all have days like that? Days when we have felt overwhelmed? Days when we have felt as if we have been hit once too often. Days when we were ready to give up. Those are Good Friday days! But Laura says: “Let us live as Easter Christians in a Good Friday world!”
What does that mean? It means that we can live as hopeful Christians in a hopeless world! Just read your newspaper. How much good news do you see? News stories focus on banks, on wars and rumors of wars –– on government getting it wrong again –– on racial conflict –– on drugs and violence. One look at your newspaper will convince you that we live in a Good Friday world. But Easter is God’s promise that he is always with us, ready to roll back the stone from the door of the tomb, so that we can live hopefully in a hopeless world. This Easter, I hope that you are not living in a Good Friday world. I hope that your world is an Easter world –– full of joy. But life is not always like that. When the disciples discovered the open tomb and the risen Jesus they were surprised by joy!
May your Easter not be like an Easter egg that is past its sell-by date, but like a fresh Easter egg, with a surprise inside awaiting you. May God surprise you this Easter with the risen Jesus. This Easter, whether your circumstances be good or ill, may God plant in your heart the memory of the open tomb and the hope of the open tomb –– may he will help you to live as an Easter Christian –– full of hope –– full of promise –– and full of joy.