A sermon by Rev. Cary Stockett
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. 52 The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. 54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
– Matt. 27:50-54, emph. vss. 52-53
This is quite a tantalizing passage, isn’t it? Only Matthew tells about this event of the graves opening, and these formerly-dead walking around. There is so much more we’d like to know, so much we aren’t told, such as who these individuals were, and what became of them afterward.
You’d think with such an astounding event as this—it doesn’t happen every day, that graves opened, and the dead within are raised to life again—you’d think that someone would have interviewed these newly resurrected folk, and ask them all these questions, and a hundred others. Yet it never crosses Matthew’s mind, because he, and everyone else present, it seems, innately senses that these aren’t the main event; the real focus of attention is Christ himself, the Lord of Life. Even as he is dying, he is the focus of amazement.
This event, though, seems to have happened as a sign, to show us and confirm our faith in what we can all confidently await, because of the work of Christ.
I. It is a sign that our Lord Christ took on full solidarity and commonality with all who have died, and with all who will die. He is at one with us in all our deaths.
A. He goes to his grave as one who is truly dead; it is no act or show. He is still, passive, and lifeless. His corpse will be attended and buried just as any other dead body. Jesus, the gospel writers all want us to understand, is dead; no if’s, and’s, or but’s, no qualifications. In this, he has reached the fullest depth of our fallen humanity, and stands shoulder to shoulder with every man and woman in human history. He is with them (and us) even in death, experiencing it in common with all.
B. He is with the dead in their death, in full solidarity with them, but because the one sharing in their death is none other than the Lord of Life, their death will be transformed.
C. As Dorothy Sayers puts it in her play, The Man Born to Be King, “The Son of Man was only a weekend guest in the house of death. On the third day, he arose and left.”
D. This death of Christ, and his coming resurrection, must be seen in its connection to the human race, for whom he died and rose again. “Because I live,” he says, “you shall live also.”
E. As one writer put it, “He can no more permit the gates of hell to prevail over them, to keep them in death, than he would allow them to prevail over him…Our graves were opened when the stone was rolled from his sepulcher. Our victory over death was secured when he burst its bands and came forth free.” (C.P. McIlvaine, pp. 33-34, Great Sermons on the Resurrection of Christ, ed.by W.M.Smith)
II. This strange and wonderful miracle is also a clear sign that in his death, X hs defeated death itself for all people.
A. I’ve told you before about the wonderful title given to John Owen’s old book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
B. The fact that these few were brought forth as representatives is a clear statement that in Christ’s death, death for all people was defeated and transformed. Just as these were seen, not lying in their tombs, but freely walking around, death cannot hold us either.
C. Death is, for all humanity, conquered in Jesus Christ. It is now just a transition. In fact, in this miraculous sign we are given to see that very likely we must re-think all our ideas about death in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
D. Back in January of this year I participated in a memorial service for a friend of mine, Milton Cash. Milton had had cancer, and near the end he was on strong doses of morphine and other pain killers, and really was not coherent much at all in those last days. But on the afternoon he died, he suddenly became very clear. Only his wife Ann was with him in the bedroom. As they talked, he raised his head, and looked past her, as if he was seeing someone else, and then he said, “Well, alright then; I’m ready whenever you are.” And with that, he lay down his head and died.
E. Now, nobody goes into death with that calm confidence unless they “SEE” Jesus, the Lord of Life, taking them through death. Death is but a transition.
F. This sign shows us that death has been defeated. Jesus has changed it all. In one of George MacDonald’s novels he writes of a pastor walking through a cemetery, and he says of him, “No grave was to him the place where a friend was lying; it was but the place where the Lord had once lain.” In sharing the grave and death with us, Jesus has forever defeated it, changed it, and taken away its power.
G. This also has particular relevance to us in terms of our loved ones who have died…
III. All of us have known this pain, to one degree or another: the loss of a parent, or maybe the loss of a spouse, or the particular heartbreak of losing a child in death. This great and strange miracle, attached to the death of our Lord, indicates to us that even these losses are not as permanent as they would seem. I believe that we see here that death doesn’t hold our loved ones who’ve died.
A. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, their death, even death itself, as we’ve said, has been defeated, and they are ALIVE. Death could never be the last word about our loved ones who have died; the last word about them, and about all of us, is Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Lord of Life, holds them in deathlessness.
B. They are alive, and we will see them again, and we will know them (it seems to be clearly implied in our text that these who came forth were recognized). I’m absolutely confident that we will see our loved ones again, and yes, of course, we will know them, and they will know us.
C. I’m confident of this fact not only because of this miraculous sign, but because I know that the God who gave us those relationships with our loved ones is not going to be content that those relationships be severed by death. No, he will restore those relationships, and will even deepen them, and they will be eternal.
D. All will be restored. Jesus himself tells us, God is the god of the living, not the dead. Our loved ones are alive, just as these who are shown here!
E. They are alive, because Jesus Christ has once and for all entered into their death, and ours, and he has conquered it. He has, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, tasted death for all men. He is our great champion, the great conqueror of death, and these who came forth that day in Jerusalem are just representatives of what we are all assured of, for ourselves and our loved ones.
F. And together with them we rejoice, saying, “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your sting? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.