The Stone-Rolling Work of God
Judy McCullough invites us to discover the ongoing surprises of the resurrection.
By Judy McCullough
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
In the weeks leading up to Easter, I read the following story in The Detroit News: “For $15.99 you can buy an Easter basket at Kmart filled with the Combat Vehicle Military Play Set and the Die-Cast Metal Army Force. Or if you are on a tighter budget, Wal-Mart has a smaller basket for $4.88 featuring an Army tech action figure equipped with an automatic rifle and bazooka, for ages three and up. Just what kids need to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.”
It was quite a contrast to the Easter baskets the Sunday-school children at church made that year. The baskets full of goodies—things to eat, pens and notepads, and notes of love and care—were then taken to some of our church’s older friends who were home bound.
The world’s idea of the Easter holiday and the truth of our faith is indeed quite a contrast.
On Easter morning we gather around contrasts—contrasts between what our world tells us and what the message of Easter tells us. We also gather around God’s greatest surprise, and no matter how many Easters we have lived and celebrated, this day is always a surprise. It always takes our breath away in one way or another. On this day more than any other, God says to each one of us, “Surprise!” God says to us, “You know all those rules you worried about? Gone in my grace. You know all those times of loneliness you have felt? Gone in my love. You know the hopeless feelings you have had when it comes to death? Gone in my promise to you of eternal life.”
Resurrection is the wildest news that has ever touched this crazy, mixed-up world. It is full of contrasts and surprises.
And this little story that is the center of our gathering on Easter Sunday—this short account from the Gospel of Mark—is both surprise and contrast as we go from three women on a mission to anoint a dead body to three women running away in terror and amazement. It is a simple plot, really. The women come to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with the spices they had bought. The stone has been rolled away from the entrance, and there is a young messenger telling them that Jesus has risen from death and that they should tell Peter and the other disciples. The women leave the tomb.
They came. They heard a message. They left. That’s it. End of story—but the beginning of the surprise of all time. And it is a beginning because the God of that first Easter is still the God of this Easter. Here. Today. God is still full of surprises. So what is God still doing?
Surprise number one: the stone is rolled away. Remember? As the women made their way to the tomb that morning, they worried about how they would get into the tomb. They asked the question, “Who will roll away the stone? We can’t do it.” They turned the corner and, surprise! God had rolled away the stone. The tomb was empty and the messenger tells them that Jesus has risen. The stone is not a problem.
And surprise! God is still into stone rolling. God still rolls away the stones of our tombs. Where are your stones? Where are mine? Look deep into the inner tomb of your being, into your heart. What are the stones you find there, the blocks, the barriers from the past that keep you from moving forward? Are there leftover broken dreams and disappointments? God’s word to us this Easter is, “It’s time to let them go. I will roll away the stone and allow you to be free of them.”
Resurrection happens every time we empty our tombs of old “stuff.” Jesus Christ blows through our tombs, emptying them and making way for new beginnings. Sometimes it comes through a friend, sometimes through a therapist, through moving to a new place, through a serious illness, through talking honestly with someone who has hurt us deeply, through meeting someone new. Sometimes it comes through a major change. But however Jesus comes, it is always a surprise when we discover the tomb of our heart is free—it is empty of a past problem. Sometimes we don’t even realize it has happened until later.
Resurrection happens every time we empty our tombs of old “stuff.”
Surprise number two: this resurrection wildness empowers us most fully when we are empty. The stone is rolled away, we are emptied, and it is then that we are able to be truly filled. It makes me think of when our kids were teenagers and the music was always blaring through the house. For a time, one of their favorites was Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.” Easter is all about running on empty. No matter the pain, the loss, the loneliness, the hopelessness, the despair we feel, the power of God in our lives infuses us with extraordinary ability to keep on keeping on.
The world would have us believe that we are stuck in the rut of the roads that life puts us on. Easter says, surprise! It’s when you’re going down that road, feeling your worst, that resurrection happens. Stop for a moment. Think of a time in the last year when you were feeling empty—and think about how you have come to a new place. Finding oneself in a new place emotionally, physically, or spiritually—that is resurrection.
Jesus will not be contained by us—or by any church—anymore than the tomb could be contained by a huge stone.
When you look over your shoulder and see where you have been and say, “I came through that?” that is resurrection. And the more we are open to that presence, to that possibility, the more we are able to grow and become new. This is also an amazing contrast. The crucifixion of Jesus—the agony and horror of that event—is part of the message of Easter. When we are in a time of pain or suffering, it is difficult to even hope for joy on the other side. The ultimate good news of Easter is that death is not the last word. We move from death times to life times—even when our own end of life, as we know it in this world, comes to us. It is always a mystery. We can’t explain it or analyze it. There is no proof test. But God does fill up the empty places of our life, even in our death.
Surprise number three: God always leaves us standing on tiptoe, expectantly joyful, looking down the road because there’s always a new thing being created, a new joy, a new surprise just around the corner. The story in Mark is short and sweet. Only eight verses. I used to be bothered by this abrupt ending. In fact, if you look in a Bible, you will see that there is a second ending to the story, and biblical scholars tell us that it was added later by someone else. At first thought, I want a neat and tidy ending that sends us out with a mission. However, God has another surprise for us all. No neat and tidy message. The story just seems to stop. Thud.
In the original Greek text, the book of Mark ends with the word gar, which means “for” and which would come in the middle of a sentence. In other words, it doesn’t end. And that’s it. That’s the message. It doesn’t end. It hasn’t ended. We have to figure out that ultimately God is in charge. And no matter what ending we decide is best for the story, Jesus will not be contained by us—or by any church—anymore than the tomb could be contained by a huge stone. Individuals and groups and churches are always trying to be in charge, but Jesus will not be held. Not by stones nor by institutions. Always Christ goes before us. Always he is making new appearances in our Galilees—the Galilees in our world, the Galilees in our daily lives.
Look at your own life. Who are the people who have touched your life and enabled you to grow? That is resurrection.
When are the times you knew deep inside that you were being carried through pain and loss? That is resurrection.
How have you moved from a place that seemed unbearable to a place that brings you fulfillment? That is resurrection.
What are the decisions you have made that have brought you new life, new discoveries? That is resurrection.
Maybe your life is in a hard place right now. Maybe you have difficult decisions to make. You are confused. You are hurting. Surprise! We never know where and how we will meet Christ, but this I know. He meets us all the time out on the road, in the thick of living our lives. The basic life stance of a Christian is not a neat and tidy package all tied up and finished. The basic life stance of a Christian is expectancy.
We live standing on tiptoe, always expecting Christ to come a little more, always looking down the road knowing our God is full of wonderful surprises if we say yes to them. We look down the road expectant, not knowing what is there, but knowing it is mystery, and knowing that however it is, it is full of the truth of this day. “He is not here. He is risen. He has gone ahead of you to Galilee and you will meet him there.”
Mark says the women were afraid, they were trembling. So are we a lot of the time. We are afraid of many things, especially when all seems lost as it did to those women. But their fear passed. God rolled away the stone of their fear. God carried them when they were running on empty. And God left them expectant, ready to meet Jesus.
God does the same for us.
Judy McCullough is a retired Covenant pastor living in Dennis, Massachusetts.