For fifteen weeks now, we have been looking at the events of Jesus’ life.  We started at Christmas, when we heard once again the story of his birth. We looked at his baptism, as an adult, by John the Baptist; and the temptations he faced in the wilderness as he tried to figure out, as we all do, what he was supposed to do with his life. We examined the beginning of his ministry, his basic message and the calling of disciples; and his teachings, as presented in the Sermon on the Mount. We saw how he did evangelism, spreading his good news; and how he used miracles in his ministry – miracles of healings, of feeding, of comforting, always for the benefit of those around him. We considered his relationship with his friend John the Baptist; and heard again the mysterious story of the Transfiguration, when he met Moses and Elijah high upon the mountain. We looked at how he responded to disputes within his circle of disciples, and challenges and accusations from outside that circle. And in this past week, we have heard again the story of his triumphant procession into Jerusalem, and only a few days later, his arrest, trial, and death—the Passion. “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.”

Were this a normal biography, it would now be time to sum up Jesus’ life, now that it is over – to recap the most important events, to list his accomplishments, to assess what lasting impact he has had on the history of humanity. It would be time for the epilogue, time to wrap things up.

But this is not . . . a normal biography, is it?

Hear now, the continuing story of the events of Jesus’ life, as presented by the Gospel of Matthew: {Matthew 28: 1-10, 16-20}

Last Easter, we heard the Gospel of John’s version of the resurrection, the way John told the story.

Today we look at the particular emphases of Matthew’s version of the resurrection: Two women, both named Mary, go to Jesus’ tomb early Sunday morning; an earthquake takes place, and an angel descends from heaven and rolls away the stone from in front of the tomb; the angel announces to the Marys that Jesus is risen and that they should go tell the other disciples; and Jesus himself then meets them, on their way back, and repeats the angel’s message.

What could this have been like, for the women? What feelings did it generate? Is there anything in our experience that could even remotely resemble the experience they had that day, meeting the angel and then the risen Jesus? Can we even imagine what they felt? Today we try to put ourselves in their place: what was it like, that first Easter morning?

One of the first things they must have felt was complete surprise. They went to “see the tomb,” Matthew tells us, to see again where Jesus’ body had been put to rest—the way we might visit the grave of a loved one, with no expectation other than seeing a peaceful place, with no hope other than to feel comforted a little bit. It was an early, quiet, Sunday morning. But then earthquakes! Angels! Huge stones rolling away! God broke into the early quiet Sunday morning with a bang, not a whisper, and turned everything—all expectations—upside down.

God does this, breaks in in unexpected ways, sometimes. We’re going along performing our usual routines or rituals or traditions, maybe not even thinking about it, maybe out of habit, and God shakes us awake and turns everything upside down in a moment. It’s like the knock on the door from Publishers Clearinghouse: one moment you’re vacuuming; the next moment your life has changed. It’s the way a phone call, out of the blue, brings news that stops you in your tracks. Or a certain piece of mail comes and everything is changed. Your daughter says, “Mom? Dad? I’m getting married!” and your schedule, and your priorities, aren’t what they were two minutes ago. The boss calls you in away from your paperwork, and suddenly you’ve got a promotion or a new district, with a whole new set of customers; so much for concentrating on paperwork.

And all these things we might expect, at least a little—you at least knew your daughter was dating someone, or that your good work at the office had been noticed. With God, the possibilities for surprise are even greater. While we’re in our routines, in our habits, heads down, going our usual way, God sees much bigger, and can suddenly crash through  in a way we could never suspect. God’s possibilities are so many more.

The first reaction to the stunning events, Matthew reports, was something like shock; surprises first take our breath away, regardless of how good the news is: “Guess what, dear? We’re having a baby!” “Suzanne, how’d you like to be Vice President?” “Will you marry me?” Before any other emotion strikes, there’s that period of shock. “The guards shook and became like dead men.” “’Do not be afraid,’ the angel said to the women.” God can break into our lives with such surprises that we are stunned.

Then one thing the Marys learned, once they had some time to recover and reflect back on it, and one thing we are reminded of, is that our expectations and assumptions about life aren’t necessarily permanent truths. “We’re going to the tomb, and we’re going to see a lot of stone, and we might talk a little between ourselves, and then we’ll come home. That’s it. Of course that’s it. What else could there possibly be? We just saw it ourselves a day and a half ago. There’s nothing but a tomb. Don’t be foolish!”

How insistent we can be that what we know is all there is and there can’t be any more. We can even get angry if someone suggests that things could be better than we know: “No that’s all; I know that’s all. Leave me alone. My life can’t get any better; this is all there is for me. I can’t learn anything new, and start anything now. I can’t do any more, or stop doing anything I’m stuck with now. This is life; this is all there is. I’m realistic.”

Sometimes we have breakthroughs, sometimes breakthroughs from inside: a person discovers in therapy or in talking with friends “Hey, you know what? I’m not a bad person. I don’t deserve to be pushed around. “ Or “I am forgiven; I can start over, with a clean slate.” Or sometimes a discovery of something outside opens things up; a few of my friends in seminary or churches I’ve served have discovered “WOW! I’d never looked at the Old Testament! Look how much more there is we can know about God!”

God has a habit of reminding us that we don’t know everything there is to know about life, that our expectations and assumptions aren’t all there is, and may not even be true. God tries to keep us open to new possibilities, to offer us hope.

Sometimes the new possibilities bring other emotions along with joy—and this is true of the first Easter too. Four times in the ten verses of the resurrection story we hear about fear: the guards shook with fear. The angel told the women “Do not be afraid.” Jesus told the women “Do not be afraid.” And even after all this, when they ran to tell the disciples, it was with fear and great joy.

The tone of the story as a whole suggests that the prevailing emotion was joy, but there was some fear still lurking in there too. And that is not unusual in God’s dealings with us either. While what we’re called to can be invigorating, can be exciting, can open up possibilities we never knew existed, it can also be a bit scary, or make us a bit nervous—that’s what happens with new things.

I haven’t officiated at a single wedding where there wasn’t nervousness mixed in with the joy—and the grooms, by the way, are probably worse than the brides. That promotion, to Vice-president, brings its share of apprehension along with pride: “Am I sure I can do this job?” And why are hectic carnival rides and scary movies so popular anyway? We can expect other emotions in with the joy when God is at work, opening up new possibilities in our lives. It can be a little scary, the scope of God’s vision and power—and knowledge of our potential.

Finally, notice how Mary and Mary got to be in the position of being surprised, of having their breath taken away, of having their assumptions rocked, of experiencing fear and great joy combined—in the first place: The Marys were the ones who had new possibilities presented to them . . . because they were the ones showing their dedication to Jesus to the end. They were the ones who came to him that morning. They were at the cross; they were at the tomb when he was buried; they were at the tomb as soon as the Sabbath was over, to pay their respects again. Even though they weren’t expecting anything but cold stone, their faithfulness put them in a place where a life-changing event could happen, against all expectations. Had they not been there, there would have been no surprise, no joy, no new possibilities for them, at this point.

Sometimes it’s faithfulness that puts us in the place where God’s breakthroughs can happen, even if they don’t happen all the time. Maybe not every worship service we attend will teach us something new and profound about God, or give us a great emotional sense of God’s presence, or create a closer relationship with one of our fellow worshippers, but if we’re faithful in attending worship services, we’ve greatly increased the chance that we will be there the times God does break through.

Maybe not every good deed we do will turn somebody’s life around or be received with great gratitude and appreciation, or be recognized by the recipient as an expression of our faith, but if we’re faithful in our giving and our helping, we’ve greatly increased the chance that such a breakthrough will happen—that someone’s life will be turned around, or they will express gratitude, or will recognize a demonstration of faith.

Maybe not every invitation we extend to someone to come to church with us will be received with enthusiasm, but if we faithfully continue to extend such invitations, we greatly increase the chances that there will be a response, and a new friend beside us in the pew. Mary and Mary experienced God’s stunning breakthrough because their faithfulness to Jesus put them in a place where they could experience it; they were the first to see Jesus because they were the ones who came.

The story continues with “the eleven” disciples, “the twelve” minus Judas, going to meet the risen Christ, some time later, as he had instructed; now their faithfulness and obedience puts them in a place where they see the resurrection. They receive the two-fold commission: to make new disciples, and to teach them what Jesus has taught. And they receive the promise: He is with us always, to the end of the age.

And I imagine they felt something like what Mary and Mary felt . . . and something like what we can discover and we can feel, this Easter morning and every day of faith:

(1) God breaks into our lives in unexpected ways. While we’re stuck in routines or rituals, God’s possibilities are much more.

(2) God can take our breath away; the surprise can be so great as to shock us at first.

(3) God reminds us, that our assumptions and expectations aren’t necessarily permanent truths, that there is always hope, always the possibility of greater things.

(4) What God does can challenge us, even scare us, as well as bring

great joy. And,

(5) The more faithful we are in our attempts to carry out God’s will, the more opportunity we have to be part of God’s great breakthroughs, which bring new life.

Let us pray: God, we know we can be stubborn about how we think things must be, or that we can be afraid of new possibilities and new life. Thank you for crashing through our pessimistic assumptions and limited vision, and bringing us new possibilities and new life. Help us to be faithful in responding to your ever-present potential . . . for surprise. Amen.