Preaching at Easter has its unique challenges and opportunities.
A typical Easter worship service is often a bit chaotic. Family members who have been away may be home for the holiday. People who rarely worship may come to church for the sake of tradition. The Easter story itself may seem all too familiar, yet those who try to preach it may wonder how anyone could possibly believe it. This challenge is precisely the opportunity. No preacher can make a listener believe that the dead rise. But God can and does work through the Easter message to evoke Easter faith.
The account that is given in Luke 24:1-12 lends itself to a sermon in four steps.
1. The story begins with the obvious: Jesus is dead, and his followers assume that he remains dead (24:1-3). The women come to the tomb because that is where the saw the body of Jesus was placed after his crucifixion (23:55-56). They bring the spices along to anoint the body of Jesus, to show proper respect for the dead. The discovery of the empty tomb does not lead to an easy change of perspective. It brings confusion, not clarity. Bodies that are dead presumably remain dead. The best one can do is to treat them with respect.
Many modern readers of the gospel might be content to do the same. We, too, assume that death is death, and that our proper response should be to enshrine the dead Jesus in the tomb of memory. We might recall that he was an insightful teacher, a fiery prophet, and a compassionate healer. But he died. So we imagine ourselves called to hallow his memory with praise for his legacy, much as the women imagined themselves called to honor his dead body with spices and ointments. One would think that would be enough.
2. The women receive a word that runs counter to what they know to be true. "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen" (24:5). One might be tempted to linger over the description of these angelic messengers, but they are not the point. The focus in this section is on the message, not the messengers (24:4-7). What is most striking is that the women encounter the resurrection through this message. They are told that Jesus has risen, but they do not see the risen Jesus himself. What they have is a word, a message.
This brings the Easter experience uncomfortably close, because this is precisely what we have--the word of resurrection. One would think God would work differently. It would seem so much easier to have the women come to the tomb and watch Jesus walk out into the light of a new day. And it would seem much easier for Jesus simply to appear in dazzling glory to us, who gather on an Easter morning generations later. And this is precisely where our situation is like that of the women on the first Easter: we are all given a message of resurrection, which flies in the face of what we know to be true.
3. The only logical response to such a message is unbelief. Experience teaches that death wins. The Easter message says that Jesus lives. When such contradictory claims collide, it only makes sense to continue affirming what we already know. This is what Luke reports in the next section (24:8-11). The women bring the message of resurrection to the others, and they respond as thinking people regularly respond: they thought that the message was "an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (24:11).
Unbelief does not mean that people believe nothing. Rather, it means that they believe something else. People say "I don't believe it" because there is something else that they believe more strongly. Yet here is where the Easter message begins its work, by challenging our certainties. Experience teaches that death wins and that even the strongest succumb to it. Experience teaches that life is what you make it, so get what you can while you can because it will be over soon enough. And the Easter message says, "Really? How can you be so sure?" Death is real, but it is not final. In Jesus, life gets the last word.
4. The Easter message calls you from your old belief in death to a new belief in life. The claim that the tomb could not hold Jesus, and the idea that the one who died by crucifixion has now risen is so outrageous that it might make you wonder whether it might--just might--be true. The apostles seemed convinced that the message was nonsense, nothing more than "an idle tale" (24:11). Death was death. Yet the message was so outrageous that Peter had to go and take a look for himself (24:12). He had to wonder, "What if it is true?"
Those who gather for worship on Easter Sunday follow in the footsteps of Peter. They have heard the rumor that Jesus is alive and come to hear again for themselves: "What if it is true? What if death is real, but not final? What if Jesus is not merely past but present? What if Jesus were to meet me here? What would life be then?"
The Easter reading stops with Peter's amazement, but the Easter story continues far beyond, as God continues to challenge the certainty of death with the promise of life. Go ahead and tell God that you think it is outrageous to expect anyone to believe that Jesus has risen. Go ahead and tell God that you believe that death gets the final word. None of this is news to God. He has heard it all before. He simply refuses to believe it. "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" God wonders. "Through the living Jesus I give you the gift of life. Why would you think that I would offer you anything less?"