Preachers of the gospel are not just blowing smoke. It is the task of every sermon to deliver God’s reality, not merely to describe a distant reality or to express a fond hope, but to make God’s reality plausible in the midst of what sometimes seems to be contrary evidence. Reality is what his Word produces and has produced ever since the beginning. The proclamation of God’s deliverance from sin and evil through his incarnation, death, and resurrection cuts through the illusion that others run this world, not God. The gospel of Jesus’ coming out of death and the tomb alive so that we might be restored to our identity as God’s children establishes the most enduring reality there is. The reality of the empty tomb stands, despite all false impressions and deceptive perceptions nurtured by the Liar, as Jesus labeled our adversary (John 8:44).
Believers struggle with two contradictory perceptions of what is real. One set of synonyms for “real” in my computer’s thesaurus includes “physical,” “material,” and “tangible.” Because of our reliance on humanly-devised theories and instruments to test our theories, we often face revisions of what is real and true in the realm governed by our empirical and logical abilities. That is the wonderful thing about the empirical or experimental method of assessing reality: it is eminently revisable when new theories open up new possibilities of dealing with what we regard as real. What those who practice natural scientific research regard as a working description, they may discard next month because different ways of gathering and evaluating their observations have offered a more plausible working hypothesis.
There is reality in the world of our experience, of course, but the Word of the Lord determines an enduring reality that stands often in contradiction to our perceptions and assessments of what seems real. Death is a good example. Death seems irreversible and permanent when we stand at the grave of a loved one. But Christ is really risen, indeed, and while our physical deaths have a reality about them, they are not determinative of our ultimate reality.
Despite the denial of death that permeates our society, about which Ernest Becker wrote as he was battling cancer three decades ago, the last word comes from the mouth of an empty tomb, “Aha!” The Liar and Murderer wants to deceive us into thinking death has the last word, but the angel said, “he is not here.” Therefore, we can have full confidence that, like him, the life he gives will lay our death aside and triumph over every false illusion concerning its power. This reality penetrates our world only through proclamation, a word-event, as was the original creation of reality. This word that we preach fills a void and vacuum that arises from the shadow of death over our lives. For the Word that goes forth from God’s mouth will not return to him empty. It will accomplish what he desires and plans. It achieves his purposes (Isa 55:11).
That is the preacher’s purpose and goal on the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. The empty tomb was as hard as any rock is, just as the wood of the cross had a certain resistance to nails being pounded into it, as we experience boards of various kinds. Be sure to note where the empty hollowness is: in the tomb. From the tomb come the void and the vacuum. The world seemed empty on Good Friday evening to the disciples. The reality of their hopes had been sucked away into the tomb that Joseph of Arimathea had bought. But Christ’s glory filled the earth. The Easter evening room seemed empty despite the group of disciples crowded into it, but Jesus smothered closed doors in his embrace. He embraces those who hide from emptiness behind closed doors, and he hugs those who try to hide their emptiness behind a happy but hypocritical face. He delivers a new reality, and that reality arrives through preaching his resurrection as the good news he shares with his people.
The Easter evening room seemed empty despite the group of disciples crowded into it, but Jesus smothered closed doors in his embrace
The reality of the Lord’s resurrection first invaded our own lives—or initiated our full enjoyment of human life—as his promise puts its claim on us, for instance, in my life in my baptism. The promise of life everlasting floated into our hearts and heads on water and transformed this little sinner into a child of God. It did so by burying my sinful identity with Christ and raised me up to be righteous in God’s sight (Rom. 6:3-11). Luther preached on this connection between the grave from which Jesus sprang and our baptismal life by preaching about Christ’s tomb in 1529. The tomb has relevance for every baptized believer because Jesus “took into the tomb with him not only the cloths and linen shroud in which his body was wrapped but also the whole world’s sin, damnation, misery, fear, affliction, and peril, and he covered and buried them all so that they might not harm those who believe in him” (LW 69: 275-276). Because every person’s sin and misery was claimed by Jesus as he went to the cross, believers can confidently say, “If Christ has died and been buried for me, then there is nothing lacking: all my sin, misery, and affliction are buried with him. Therefore, my heart is confident and unafraid. Even if temptation and affliction shall come, my heart hopes without any hesitation in my Lord Jesus Christ, who has buried all my sin and affliction.”
With that kind of confidence, Luther asserted, Christians resist the devil’s attempts to create discouragement and doubt because they recognize that the tomb has become the residence of all that plagues them. “For this reason, Christ’s tomb is also called and is indeed a holy sepulcher, not because of its painted façade or magnificent architecture [that were erected for late medieval children’s plays and puppet shows] but because all our sin, misery, wretchedness, death, and damnation lie buried in it and because it makes our own graves holy.”
Therefore, “we may say with the heart’s true confidence, ‘in this tomb lie all my sins and iniquity.’ And this is a proper prayer, a proper kiss, and the highest honor that one can give the grave of Christ, when I say with a believing heart, ‘thank you, dear grave, because my Lord Jesus Christ is buried in you. All my sins lie buried, therefore, in you. For Christ died and was buried for me, and thus I can depend upon his death and grave’” (LW 69: 277).
Tombs generally do not attract warm feelings, but Luther praised God’s incorporation of the mundane and despicable into his way of saving sinners from his righteous judgment. Our own tombs are forbidding and fearsome, but God had decided to use Christ’s tomb to bring us great benefit when faith in Christ’s Word looks at it because “the one who lies in the tomb is Christ, who through his death and tomb has overcome, slain, and buried all our sins. Therefore, Christ’s tomb should be read with the inward eyes of faith so that each person may say, ‘Christ’s tomb is for me; the cloths in which he was wrapped benefit me’ …” (LW 69: 278). This is the reality of God’s strange way of working, going into death to do death to death. That is the ultimate reality of our lives. In the shadow of his tomb our tombs have lost their power.
This is the reality of God’s strange way of working, going into death to do death to death.
Luther was not naïve about the difficulty of having confidence in the promise that God gives in baptism. In a world filled with false claims of reality in advertisements, news reports, and talk shows, the truth of God’s reality comes through the proclamation of his Word. This proclamation transports our sinfulness into his tomb. It takes our sorrows and sadness, our terrors and temptations, our depression and deprivation, and places them all in the tomb of Christ. These oppressions may continue to haunt us, but with the light shining from Christ’s tomb, they appear to be the temporary even if deeply troubling plagues that the Liar has invented but that have the future of all specters that come from beyond God’s kingdom.
This is the challenge and the joy of preaching on Easter. It may not be an “easy sell” in the face of the brokenness and fear that some hearers bring with them into the church that morning. But it is the truth of God. And who knows the truth better than God. He created it, also on Easter morning.