Who Will Move the Stone?
Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Because he had died so late in the day, and as the sun sets the Sabbath begins there was no time to prepare his body for burial. Therefore Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb hewn out of rock, and then he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.
On Sunday morning as the light began to dawn the women set out to Jesus tomb his body as was their custom. Along the way they began to worry, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” In Jesus’ day, such tombs typically had a downhill trench in from of them that the stone covering the entrance sat in. In life heavy objects like large stones roll downhill easy enough, but to push them up hill and out of the way is a different story. Not only that but in Matthew’s gospel we are told that the Jewish authorities went to the Roman Governor, Pilot, and was given permission to post guards by the tomb in order that no one would bother the site.
Matthew’s gospel also tells us that the stone to the tomb was sealed. I keep finding various explanations of what this means. I once read that a type of plaster was put around that stone to seal it to the opening and thus make it more difficult to move. You would have to first chisel this mortar out of the way. Another thought, taken from the Old Testament was that a wax seal was used to secure a chord across the stone thus imprinting the authority of the day upon it and making it evident if anyone should tamper with it. I guess that would be a bit like stringing up yellow police tape around a crime scene. The last idea I encountered was that an iron pin had been driven behind the stone into the rocky hillside; thus securing the rock in place.
Regardless, this was one rock that was not intended to be moved. How were the women even going to get to the body? The women trudged along with anointing spices toward the burial place. They probably walked among the pretty blue flax flowers and crimson lilies, with the air wafting apricot and almond blossoms, but their minds were certainly not filled with the charming reflections of the springtime. Their hearts were not even consumed with grief at this point. They were mostly focused on their task of providing a funeral for Jesus and those who loved him, and within that task was the question Who will roll the stone away?
Will there be anyone there, a gardener or some people strong enough to push it out of the way? At this point did they know about the guards and the tomb being sealed? Would they need an ox perhaps, or a pulley, or another tool of some kind? What about a lever or some rope? Big rocks do not just roll away. How would you move a boulder? As they walked, they were working on the problem. Surely no one would stop them from giving Jesus a decent burial.
But when they get there – they find the problem solved. We are told, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. The guards are not mentioned in Mark’s Gospel and whatever seal was placed on the tomb has been stripped away. It was not blocking them anymore and then they encountered a young man in the tomb- dressed in white.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, they stepped from the sad but earthbound task of an embalming Jesus body to an encounter with an angel, and 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.”
Often skeptics have argued that there was no resurrection, but someone else removed the body of Jesus. It was Jesus disciples or Joseph of Arimathea, or Nicodemus, or one of the authorities of the day who decided to move the body of Jesus, but none of these ideas ever work.
Who rolled the stone away? Jesus’ friends could not have easily moved the stone without having been caught, and the authorities who sealed the tomb would not have unsealed it because they wanted Jesus right where he was. Even if the authorities had taken the body of Jesus, when his disciples declared him risen they could have produced the body as proof that the resurrection was a lie, but that did not happen. No, here is the beauty of story, the more the earthly authorities did to insure Jesus body was secure and unhampered with the more certain we can be that the resurrection was truly a miracle of God. The scriptures witness is sound. Jesus is risen for God has done this.
In Matthew’s account there was an earthquake and an angel who descended from heaven to open the tomb. There are no such dramatics in Mark’s telling, though his version is no less powerful: Mark says, “when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled away.” In Greek, the word Mark uses is a-po-ke-ku-lis-tai, is in the a perfect passive tense. Most directly translated it means ‘has been rolled away’. It was rolled away then and it is rolled away now. Very often, whenever you encounter a verb in the passive voice in Scripture, it means God is the agent. God is the one acting. This is at the heart of the passives in the beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Pious Jews would regularly use the passive to avoid using the name of God. Paul does this all the time. So even without the intense drama of the Gospel of Matthew, Mark makes it very clear: the stone of the door of the tomb has been rolled away because God rolled it away.
But one thing we have to understand is that God did not roll the stone away to let Jesus out of the tomb. Following the resurrection Jesus very real presence appeared and vanished in the midst of locked rooms. Doors and walls were not a problem. The stone was rolled away not for the risen Lord, but for the women and Jesus disciples, and indeed the world so that all might see for themselves that he is not there. So that all could hear the good news and believe the word given. We need to know the truth, that Jesus lives, and that is why the stone was rolled away. It was God’s way for opening up the door for us to believe. It was God’s tangible way for making faith accessible to the grief stricken disciples and to us, but the message that the empty tomb carries has always been, Jesus is not here, but he has risen.
William Willimon explains one way to look at our confidence in the resurrection. He wrote “That first Easter, nobody actually saw Jesus rise from the dead. They saw Him afterwards. They didn’t appear to Him; He appeared to them –to us. In the Bible, the ‘proof’ of the resurrection is not the absence of Jesus’ body from the tomb; it’s the presence of Jesus to His followers. The message of the resurrection is not first, “Though we die, we shall one day return to life.” It is, ‘Though we were dead, Jesus returned to us.’
The result of Easter, the product of the Resurrection of Christ is the church –a community of people with nothing more to convene us than that the risen Christ came back to us. That’s our only claim, our only hope.” (“He Came Back,” W. Willimon, Preaching, March-April, 2007, p.48)
The story of the resurrection in Mark ends with the comment that the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It is thought that Mark ended his story this way so that his readers would consider their own responsibility to share the story with others. We may think about it. The women ran in terror and amazement because they encountered things they could not understand in a cemetery. They ran, but how far did they go before they stopped and looked at one another and said, “The stone is rolled away, and Jesus is not there, but he is risen!” The truth is that they were not quiet for long and the message got out. They had to go forth and tell someone. It was soon after that that his disciples came to experience the reality of the risen Christ in their midst and the infilling of the Holy Spirit –the Spirit of Christ forever with us.
In this life we like the women of our story are confronted in one way or the other with the fears and uncertainties of life. In the midst of those we have loved and lost. If we think long enough about what we hear in the news today, the suffering of people around the world, the questions of our economy and safety, or the state of the world’s environment, we too might find reason to run in terror and amazement. There is always so much in this life that seems to trap our hopes in a grave.
Who will make a difference for us. Who will move the immoveable stone for us and bring back hope for a better tomorrow. Friends it won’t be your preacher, or your bishop. It won’t be your family or friends or your neighbor. It won’t be your congressman or your president. Sometimes in this life there are things that only God can do, and the good news is that God has acted once and for all time. The stone has been rolled away. Here is the midst of the sadness and even darkness something new and different is present to change how we perceive our world. God has acted, and we know God has acted for the same reasons that the disciples knew. For God is with us. Jesus is risen. This is truly our hope. This story is meant to be our story. Therefore be of good courage for God is with us. Rejoice and go and share the story with others. Amen.