Saturday, April 3, 2010

When Empty Isn't Empty

Peter reached the tomb huffing and puffing. He leaned on the huge boulder that had once been rolled in front of the tomb guarding the entrance, now gone AWOL off to the side. As he caught his breath, he thought to himself that he hadn't run that fast since he had called Zechariah's sister fat and ugly, and Zechariah had chased him all around the marketplace and back to his house. Peter chuckled to himself, ironically, Zechariah's sister, Miriam, had matured into a fine young woman and was now Peter's wife. If only this mad dash could end as well, but Peter feared the worst.

It all began earlier that morning as those who had followed Jesus began to gather together to pick up the pieces. Some women of their group came running in with a tale so far beyond belief, most of their company dismissed it out of hand. Apparently, they had gone to the tomb to anoint the body, but found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. Strange. And their tale grew stranger still. According to the women, as they were beginning to investigate what had happened, two men in what they could only describe as "dazzling apparel" appeared and issued the following statement: "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen." That was the message of the dazzlingly clad strangers, word for word.

Most of the assembled followers of Jesus scoffed. Grief induced hysteria and hallucinations. There were good reasons why women were not considered as credible witnesses and this was a prime example. But Peter wasn't so sure.

Peter's mind flew back to a day not so long ago when he had declared his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. What was it that Jesus said in response to him that had set him off and had him presuming to teach his teacher? Think, Peter, think. Something about being handed over to the religious leaders and authorities... and then... and then being killed... and then something about on the third day rising. Yes, he was sure that was it. Handed over, killed, third day rising. Well this was the third day since his death. Surely Jesus didn't mean... Surely he couldn't have known.

And so Peter had set off on his mad dash to the tomb, uncertain of what he would find, and of what it all might mean. Now having caught his breath enough to keep from gasping for air, he tentatively peered inside. What he saw almost caused him to lose what little wind he had recovered. As his eyes adjusted to the change in light, he clearly saw the grave clothes neatly folded and laying on the shelf where the body should have been, but there was no trace of the body. No strange men in dazzling apparel either. Just the folded clothes and the scent of burial spices. What had happened here?

Peter didn't know what to think, what to believe, what to hope. Could Jesus really have...? Dare her hope...? Could there be redemption, real redemption even for him? Peter left the tomb empty, his head spinning, his mind giddy with the possibilities...

You remember where we last encountered Peter in Luke's story: Peter, full of himself, had bragged that he would follow Jesus to prison and even to death. And at the time he truly meant it. He tried to follow through. He did honestly try. He followed Jesus to the High Priest's courtyard. But that's as far as his resolve would take him. There he denied being a follower of Jesus three times before the cock crowed, even went so far as to deny he even knew who Jesus was. This is exactly what Jesus had said would happen. How could he have known Peter even better than Peter knew himself?

And no sooner had that cock crow echoed off into the distance, then Jesus somehow turned and gave him a knowing look, an, O, Peter, I really wish I weren't right this time, kind of a look. It was a look that showed Peter how empty and useless his resolve really was. And Peter feeling extremely empty inside, retreated weeping bitter tears.

Flash forward: It was Peter's turn to look into the emptiness, the emptiness of the tomb. But Peter's was not a knowing glance. It was the glance of one who had failed miserably, despite his own best efforts. It was the glance of one knowingly in need of redemption, yet unable to believe that such redemption was possible; and yet... Hadn't Jesus, at the same time he predicted his failure of nerve, asked him to strengthen the believers when he had turned back? How? How could he turn back? He had no inner strength left. He was empty, totally spent... empty. It was at that point where Peter's inner emptiness intersected the emptiness of the tomb that his resurrection experience, his redemption began.

We are no strangers to emptiness. Empty words. Empty promises. Empty dreams. Empty experience. We try to fill the emptiness with stuff: with relationships, with possessions, with noble concepts or noble living; but, it all gets sucked into the vacuum of emptiness. Nothing fits. Nothing fills. Nothing remains. Only emptiness.

At this point three options exist: 1.) Vainly and heroically continue to fill the emptiness with what we know cannot fill it. 2.) Surrender to the emptiness, as did Judas Iscariot, and end up just as badly. 3.) Lay the emptiness of our existence at the entrance to the empty tomb and let God's resurrection power expand and explode the emptiness, allowing cracks for redemption and new life to begin.

We cannot come to the empty tomb full of oursleves -- our pride, our excuses, our accomplishments -- and expect to experience anything other than an empty tomb. But if we come to the empty tomb like Peter, gasping for breath, bearing only our own inner poverty and emptiness, we can experience that miracle that happens when our inner emptiness intersects with the emptiness of the tomb: resurrection, redemption, and life.

It doesn't take much imagination to picture Peter retelling his story again and again and again. How he thought he was strong. How he thought he was brave. But his strength and bravery were useless. He betrayed his Lord, denied him, refused to even acknowledge he knew him. And yet at his lowest, Jesus redeemed him. And if Jesus can do that for me, Peter, he can do that you too.

Peter's weakness became God's strength. Peter's inner emptiness intersected with the empty tomb, and great signs and wonders occurred. And if it happened for Peter, it can happen for anyone. Even you, and you, and you, and maybe even me.

The tomb stands empty before us. Dare we empty ourselves and approach? Dare we not?

The Resurrection of Our Lord/Easter Day 2010

I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.

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