Recently a friend told me about his difficulty in recovering from a Covid infection he caught last winter. The symptoms lingered, preventing him from returning to normal life. He went on to say that the most disturbing symptom was “brain fog,” which is a complaint common among those who’ve been diagnosed with long Covid.
We don’t trivialize the suffering that this symptom brings into a person’s life when we say that it can seem at times that we too are living in a fog. As soon as there is a semblance of order in our surroundings, we settle into our routines. Now don’t misunderstand; we’re not saying that routines are necessarily bad; on the contrary, they enable us to get things done with efficiency. But routines can easily become ruts, which make our minds numb. That’s what we mean when we say it can sometimes feel as if we’re living in a fog.
Some grow dissatisfied with this state of affairs, and seek out novelty and adventure to break up and dispel the fog. Others find a certain comfort in the predictability that routine affords and are careful not to disturb the conditions. But inertia seems, in the end, to win out and compels most of us to conform to the repetitive nature of things. And little by little we become closed to the possibility that life can be any different.
We should realize that when the women left to go to the tomb on Easter morning, they fully expected to find Jesus’ body there. They are devout and compassionate women, dutifully carrying out the traditional work in their culture of caring for the dead. They do not yet know that something has happened that’s made life totally different. It’s early dawn, and the sun hasn’t yet burned off the morning fog. This world still appears to them to be the same place where all the living can do is bring spices to reduce the stench of death.
And who can find fault with them? Don’t we have the same attitude? As we look around, we also see a world where death stalks in every place. We’ve experienced a pandemic that’s claimed the lives of friends and loved ones. We witness a cruel war in Ukraine that has already wiped out thousands of innocent lives. We adjust and respond to death along prescribed lines, just like the women in our gospel lesson. We pay our respects; we cope with our losses; and then we move on. That’s just how it is; that’s how it’s always been.
The women are still grief-stricken, still overwhelmed with sorrow. The evidence for this claim is that they gave no thought about how to move the stone before they set out. Our minds are often confused and disoriented after reeling from a painful loss. In Mark’s account, on which Luke depends, the women ask each other on the way: “who will roll the stone away for us from the entrance to the tomb?” But in Luke there’s no suggestion that the question about the stone occurred to them at all.
But it doesn’t matter, because when they arrive the tomb is open. Luke isn’t interested in telling us how the stone was moved, only that when the women went in, they didn’t find the body.
So far there’s nothing in the woman’s experience that’s out of the ordinary. We can imagine that the first thought that crossed their minds upon finding no body is: grave robbers.
Anglican theologian John Macquarrie reminds us that we tend to level down everything that is unique and original to the universal and the typical. We do this to make it intelligible. That’s how our minds work. But we need to be careful, because if we’re not, then we’ll lose our openness to new experience.
In this connection, Macquarrie adds that if the gospel really discloses the new and brings to light what’s previously been hidden from us, then we must let it speak for itself and not force it to fit into molds that we’ve already formed on the basis of previous experience. And why? Because our experience is always incomplete and therefore inadequate.
On this point the great theologian Karl Barth makes the following observation: “when the [gospel] meets us, we are already laden with images, ideas and certainties we ourselves have formed about God, the world and ourselves. In the fog of our minds, the [gospel], which is clear in itself, always becomes obscure. It can become clear to us only when this fog lifts and dissolves.” Regardless of whether or not we have long Covid, when it comes to the gospel, we all suffer from brain fog, according to Karl Barth.
It’s always interesting to observe how the Bible depicts the reaction of angels to men and women. Two of them appear here. Luke describes them as two men in dazzling clothes, but it’s probably a euphemism for angels. In any event, the point we want to make is that what is obscure and therefore doubtful to us is crystal clear to the angels, who often seem genuinely puzzled if not annoyed at the reluctance of those to whom they appear to believe and accept divine truth. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
The question seems somewhat harsh and insensitive or at the very least inappropriate in the moment. Don’t they see the effect that their presence has on the poor women? The women are terrified and fall prostrate before them. As one Bible student put it, they are aware that heaven is visiting the earth.
The word for “angel” in the Bible can also be translated as messenger. We’ve seen before that angels are the first to announce the gospel. And here again: “He is not here but has risen.”
But if we consider the passage closely, we’ll see that it’s not the force of the angel’s announcement that prompts the women to entertain an alternative explanation for the empty tomb. Rather, it’s when they remember the words of Jesus to them. In order to understand the empty tomb, the women must “remember.”
Jesus predicted his passion twice while teaching his disciples in Galilee. The women “remembered his words,” namely, that the Son of Man must be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Their remembering leads to clarity, a lifting of the fog.
So what just happened to the women? At the empty tomb they came to the realization that something extraordinary and indescribable took place with respect to Jesus of Nazareth and the way they perceived God, the world, and themselves would never be the same. How do we explain the change?
For Luke, recognition of the truth about Jesus is an effect of the Word of God, which has power to dispel the fog in our minds. Consider the story that follows this one in Luke’s Gospel. Two disciples are on the road to Emmaus. A stranger approaches and begins talking to them. It’s the risen Christ, but they do not recognize him. It’s only as he explains the Scriptures to them, it’s only as he shows how the Law and the Prophets foretold how the Christ had to suffer before entering his glory that their hearts begin to burn within them. And when he sits down to share a meal with them, they recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
We too find the testimony to the resurrection of Jesus nowhere else. When the Word of God is preached, when the sacraments are administered, the Spirit of the Risen Christ is present and at work within them, bearing testimony to himself, assuring us that he is the risen and ascended Lord. We have no access to the truth of the empty tomb except through Word and sacrament.
Remembering the Word of God spoken to them leads to faith, and the women immediately leave the tomb to go and tell the disciples. Remembering leads to bearing witness, to testifying.
This is a central theme in the Gospel of Luke. A man once told me about his church, where the congregation was in the habit of responding to the preacher with the shout, “Testify!” When we read Luke’s Gospel, we can imagine his community being urged to do likewise.
What follows in the narrative can be seen as an example of how this goes. One somehow becomes convinced that the message concerning Jesus is true. In short time or long, this conviction builds to the point that one has go and tell someone else. For example, when the Jewish authorities ordered Peter and the Apostles to cease speaking about Jesus in public, they replied: We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard!”
In Luke, the women do not need to be instructed by the angels to go and tell the disciples. It is their immediate response, produced by an inner compulsion. The women are exemplary witnesses. They remember the words of Jesus and they proclaim the good news of his resurrection to the apostles without any prompting.
Their response must have disappointed the women. Nevertheless it’s true to life. Bible students today ask: “Why didn’t the apostles listen to the women?” They answer their own question: “because men have never listened to women.” But we are of the opinion that the prior question should be: why don’t people listen to preachers?
The first recipients of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus regarded it as an “idle tale.” Luke uses a strong word here. It refers to stories told by sick people, whose illness has caused them to be in a delirious state, or by people who, for whatever reason, have a distorted perception of reality.
People then as well as today respond to the message of the resurrection with doubt and unbelief. And some even heap scorn on the preachers, regarding them to be sick people with warped minds.
But the Word of God is not without effect. There’s always at least one who responds to the message positively. Often it is a tentative response. It is exploratory. Peter does not accept at face value the women’s testimony. He needs to spend time himself in the empty tomb, examining the grave clothes. He has to discover and own the message for himself.
It’s fair to assume that all who come to faith need the patient support of credible Christian witnesses, who give them the time to deepen their understanding of what it means to be a follower of the risen Christ.
For example, C.S. Lewis was converted to faith in stages. He first came to realization that God exists, and only later did he come to place his faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, Luke tells us about the reaction of the women and the apostles to the empty tomb, not only because it completes the narrative he has to tell about Jesus Christ. He writes it to make an appeal to whoever hears it.
The church understands his intent. That is why it continues even today to proclaim the hopeful message that Christ is risen. The one who was crucified has been raised to new life. In the resurrection of Jesus, the God of life overcomes the power of sin and death that disfigures and destroys human beings and all creation.
We need to hear this message anew. We need to let it penetrate the fog in which we think and feel and act so that we may perceive God, the world and ourselves according to truth.
Then we will not give up and resign ourselves to the drabness of the quotidian, closed to change, possibility, transformation, the new and the better.
For the resurrection of Jesus is the source of new life, recreating and renewing all things in Christ. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17). The resurrection of Jesus is a source of healing, wholeness, and renewal. We learned last time that all these good things are captured in the word “shalom,” a Hebrew word found in the Old Testament that is rich in content.
Our first lesson gives us a portrait of shalom. God is near, families thrive, resources abound. The sounds of weeping and cries of distress are no longer heard. Peace prevails. Let us not lose sight of this destiny that God has in store for his creation, a destiny that is sealed by the resurrection of Jesus. Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed! Amen.