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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Sermon - "Still Shining"


Preached April 12, 2020 at the 9:30am Virtual Worship

Scripture Matthew 28

1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he[a] lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”


You know those trick candles you can put on a birthday cake? The light is blown out, and everyone in the room assumes that’s it, they are out. Then, pop. There’s light again. No one expects it. Next time, watch the people. The one blowing, and a few others get more and more frustrated, and try to blow harder and make it stay out… while some grin, smile, laugh, finding it more and more hilarious that the light continues to find a way back out of our best attempts to bring darkness.

These women had seen the light and life of their friend, their teacher, their Lord puffed out. His enemies had been jealous of the following he was getting, and had been upset at the way he challenged their beliefs and practices. His friends had betrayed him and deserted him. The powers and authorities had let him be crucified. The crowds demanded it and cheered for it, then watched, and did nothing to stop it. These women saw him crucified, buried and sealed away in a tomb, his light and life snuffed out.

They didn’t linger, hang around to see if was really over. They went home. They huddled up somewhere, probably with some of the other disciples, other women, some children, and didn’t wonder at all if it was really over. They knew it was really over, that the light and life of their Lord had been extinguished.

So here’s what gets me… Why did they come back? Why did they come back to the tomb at all? The kid that blows out the candles then hops down and runs to open presents, he only comes back to the cake when he hears the gasps and laughter of the other people surprised at the reignition of the trick candles. These women didn’t have that. They didn’t hear anyone surprised, laughing, nor did they expect to hear or see anything hopeful or happy at all. So why, why did they head back to the tomb?

The Gospels of Mark and Luke suggest maybe they were coming back to put spices and oils on Jesus’ body, but that doesn’t really make sense either, does it? Even those authors have the women saying, “How are we going to move the stone?” They might have been carrying spices and oils with them, but they knew they weren’t going to be able to get in the tomb. Still, they came back, and in so doing, they were the first to see resurrection, and their grief and pain were flipped over into and awe, and joy. These women who saw the light shining again, they started the chain reaction of fearful joy and lit the candles on the birthday cake of what we call the church. But I still wonder what made them go back in the first place.

I wonder, because today, the church, this church, and the worldwide global church, is still feeling unable to throw a party… Caitlan, Kate, and I are here to say some words and prayers and lead you in singing some songs. We are trying, by video, through your screens at home, to inspire awe and joy that life surprisingly somehow goes on even beyond death. It’s a different life. He did die, but he lives. He’s still the same, but he’s changed. He won’t be with us like he was before, but he will be with us, forever, even to the end of the age. We, the church, are tasked by him with remembering all this, and going out there, and teaching others what he said and did, and helping others see it too, the empty tomb, and feel it too, the fearful joy. We are called to baptize the whole world into this fearful joy, that death happens, but life continues and extends through and beyond death.

To many people who have been hurt by circumstance, surprised by evil, shocked by death, the church’s attempt to throw an Easter party seems at best naïve or at worst offensive.

When someone is going through trouble, evil, death, they can find themselves struggling with strong feelings and thoughts about God, who God is and isn’t, what God is doing or not doing in the world. For the church to have joy and throw a party doesn’t seem to fit the seriousness of their situation. I’ve seen people turn from church and God because of this. I wasn’t raised in the church. My mom did take me to church with her, until her husband, my dad, died when I was 6. Mom never went back to church after that. She died 25 years later without a pastor or church family. I myself remember happily avoiding church and battling with God for years, wondering why God would take a daddy from a 6-year-old boy. I didn’t want anything to do with this God or any church who worshipped this God. I remember the awkwardness of Mom’s grief and pain, my own grief and pain, in contrast with the church’s celebration and joy of this so-called Easter life. I remember seeing it as hypocrisy, churches celebrating how death was conquered, all the while I was still fatherless.

When I sit with people who are scared, hurting, grieving something that happened long ago or that is happening right now, I try to tap into my own feelings of frustration and futility, and to remember what it felt like to walk away from a sealed tomb, and to assume death had won. CoViD is getting all the attention right now, and there are people some of us know with it, and some of them may die from it. Meanwhile, others are still suffering and some are dying from cancer, hunger, mental illness, suicide, depression, addiction.

Death is so real and seems to deserve the final word. For years, my Mom walked away. I walked away. The disciples, they walked away. The women, they walked away. Maybe you, at the end of some ordeal of pain or death in someone you loved found yourself turning, walking away, going home. So many who turn and walk away never come back because the Easter party doesn’t seem to understand and respect their grief.

That’s why I’m so interested in knowing why those women come back? They had seen death and were deep in grief, but they came back anyway. In so doing, they met a risen Lord who greeted them warmly and told them not to be afraid. The Lord then sent them out to tell others the good news.

When the women tell the others, they are still scared, and still sure death has won. That’s the same place the women had been just a few moments ago, and maybe where some of us have been. But now, the women, who themselves were grieved and scared have a new sense of things. Life is bigger than death. The one they loved and lost to death, he lives. The others are still grieving, sad, mad, numb. Maybe you’ve been there, or are there now. I’ve been there. The women were there too just a few moments ago. But for whatever reason, they went back anyway, and because they did, they were the first to experience a fearful joy that life is bigger than death.

Despite their own suffering, their own encounter with death, they found some way to get up and come back. That changed everything. They told us about it and invited us to come with them. Everyone who has ever lived before us had their own encounter with suffering, evil, or death. But on Easter morning, a group of women did the unthinkable. Despite their grief and knowledge of the power of death, they got up and went back to the tomb. They were pioneers of faith. They had no good reason to go back, but they went back anyway. I still don’t know why those first women went back, but I’m so glad they did. What they started continues today. We keep coming back today because of them, the fearful joy they discovered when they went back anyway.

We wouldn’t have to look very far into this church family, or the community, to see how suffering, evil, or death are still doing their best to blow out another set of birthday candles. Some of the people we know or love may not make it to their next birthday cake. But we are e anyway. We came back together this morning. Maybe you remember a time when you really struggled, and someone told you with awkward fearful joy about life reaching beyond death, and it didn’t fit your feelings or knowledge at the time. Some online with us this morning, may be feeling an awkwardness sense of grief, pain, or fear. Wherever we are, struggling with griefs of the past, pain of the present, or fear of the future, we’ve done something miraculous today. We all come back today. We followed those women and came back. We are here to throw a party in death’s face, to fearfully, joyfully state that death doesn’t have the final say on us or on those we love.

No matter what comes, let’s keep coming back to see and hear the good news over and over again, to fearfully wondering if the light is out, and to joyfully find it is still shining.

To this God be all the glory and honor, now and forevermore. Amen.


Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore. Rev. Joel L. Tolbert Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown

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