Sounds of the Passion: Rolling Stone

Mark 16:1-8 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

We have heard lots of disturbing sounds of the passion during Lent. We heard the distressing sounds of clinking coins signaling Judas’ betrayal; the crowing rooster marking Peter’s denial; and the tramping feet signaling the arrival of Jesus’ enemies.

On Good Friday we heard the disquieting sounds of the hammer pounding nails through divine flesh and blood. Then, after Joseph and Nicodemus placed Jesus’ corpse into the grave, we heard the dreadful sound of the stone being rolled across the mouth of the tomb. The Son of God was dead!

But, perhaps the most chilling sound of the entire week was heard all day Saturday. It was silence. The Lord of life had not moved. He did not stir. He was still dead.

The sound of death is terrifying.

Working outside in the backyard with your kids when you hear the sound of the tornado siren. That sound causes you to stop in your tracks, gather all your children and dive for shelter. That is the sound of death in the air.

Visiting with your mother who is in hospice care. The sound of shallow breathing is followed by silence. That silence is the sound of death in the room.

Attending the funeral for a fallen police officer or retired soldier. As everyone is leaving the cemetery, the haunting melody of “Taps” is heard. That single bugle is the sound of death at the cemetery.

Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, wrote this poem about death:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Thomas wrote those famous words as he watched his father, a once vigorous soldier, grow weak and frail. Thomas’ words grip our hearts. We all dread dying. And we fear the dying of those we love. Thomas’ own “light” was extinguished in 1953, and he probably did not go gently.

If you have been present to hear the sounds of death, you understand Thomas’ point. Dying is not gentle. It is not nice. It is not natural. Dying exists in God’s once immortal human race as a punishment for human evil and rebellion.

People talk about “dying with dignity.” But no matter how a person dies, there is no dignity in death. It is because of sin that all of us are going to die. Death is God’s curse upon the human race for its countless generations of inborn and active sins. “For dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).

Contrary to the popular notions of death as friendly and suicide as a solution, the Bible describes death as our enemy. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” the apostle Paul reveals (1 Corinthians 15:26). The Lord created us for life, not death.

Over the centuries, we have tried to deal with death and the grave in all kinds of ways. We have tried to ignore it. We have tried to stall its arrival. We have tried to control it and bring it about in our time and on our terms. We have done our best to try to bribe death, negotiate with it, and even flat out deny it. But no matter what we do or how hard we do it, death still stays in complete control. Death is an enemy we cannot defeat.

The sounds of death – from the public sounds of police and fire sirens at a huge accident on the freeway to the personal sounds of the “death rattle” in the hospital room – these sounds are all around us. They are unpleasant. They are unsettling. They are upsetting.

We are terrified of ever hearing those sounds because they are final. They are irreversible. They are also inevitable.

That is what Jesus’ disciples and followers felt as they heard the stone being rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb. Their friend was crucified. Their rabbi had been killed. Their Savior was dead. It was all so final. There was no hope any more. The only thing the disciples could do was hide from the enemies so they didn’t end up in the grave, too. The only thing the women could do was prepare Jesus’ corpse for a proper burial.

It must have seemed as if death had won. As if the devil had defeated Jesus. As if God’s curse was stronger than God’s promise.

In their fear and dread, none of them were really listening. For if they would have been at the tomb at sunrise on Sunday morning, they would have heard the superlative sound of the rolling stone. The angel rolled back the stone – not to let the Lord out, but to show the world that the Lord was already gone. He rolled it back so that the women, the disciples, and the world would believe.

We can peer into that open, empty tomb and know that Jesus’ resurrection was no mere spiritual resurrection, but that Jesus was wholly and fully alive. Not just part of Him, but all of Him – body and soul. Anything less would not have been a victory. Anything less would have meant that death had not been defeated, but had won after all. And if death is not defeated, then sin is not defeated. And if sin is not defeated, then we are still in our sin. And if we are still in our sin, then we have no hope (1 Corinthians 15:14), and Easter is not the most joyous, but the saddest, day of the year.

But the sound of the rolling stone has echoed through the ages! That is the sound of victory! The sound of life resurrected! The grave is open. It is empty. Listen to the sound of the angel’s voice assure you of exactly what happened: “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.”

Death used to be in control. But no longer.

The punishment of death has been paid by Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death means that death has died. 

The curse of death upon the first Adam has been removed by fulfilling promise in the second Adam. God’s promise is greater than His curse.

The sting of death felt by all humanity has been eliminated by Christ’s victory over death. Christ’s victory has extracted the venom from the ancient serpent’s sting.

The rolling away of the stone revealing the empty tomb has changed everything. By taking upon Himself the curse of sin and the sting of death, the dying process loses its fear for us. Now a little girl can say with all confidence to her Christian mother who is dying of cancer, “I’ll see you in heaven, Mommy.” Now the family gathering together at the ER after their father’s unexpected heart attack can repeat with Job, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21). Now the elderly Christian can repeat with his pastor the words of the twenty-third Psalm with his dying breaths.

Here are sweet words from a man in his 90s: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. ... Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). You can go gently when you know the resurrected Christ is waiting for you.

Because Jesus is alive, we have hope on the day we stand at the coffin of a Christian loved one. Because that garden tombstone was rolled away, we have complete confidence when we lay down our head upon our own death bed.

The angel told the women, “Don’t be alarmed.” You no longer need to be alarmed by death. You can trust this resurrected Jesus of ours. You can trust Him with your sins. You can trust Him with your life. You can ultimately trust with your death.

The Bible calls death “the enemy.” Not a friend, but a foe! Not something to be accepted, but something to be defeated! Something to be put under Jesus’ foot, and squashed like a bug!

And so God did! And that’s what we are celebrating today. “Jesus Christ is risen today!” (CW: 157) “I know that my Redeemer lives!” (CW: 152) “Scatter the Darkness, Break the Gloom.” (CWS: 722) “Up from the grave he rose again!” (CWS: 752) Whether we sing it or shout it, the stone has been rolled away! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Jesus has reversed the irreversible. Jesus controls the uncontrollable. He has destroyed the power of the devil by His life and death. With that, He has also destroyed the devil's ability to keep us afraid of death. Christ’s own promise is, “Because I live, you will live” (John 14:19).

And that is precisely why we can dry our eyes at the casket. It is why we can rejoice in defiance against our mourning, for those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death. The Son of God has gone ahead of us into death. He has also gone ahead of us into the resurrection. He is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20). When we Christians bury our dead, it is as if we are laying a baby down to sleep and the casket becomes nothing more than a second cradle. This dying in Christ is the joy reserved for the Christian!

Martin Luther wrote about this: “To know how to die is reserved for the Christians. It should be their art to put death out of sight, to learn to despise it in Christ, and to picture nothing to themselves except life alone. Not one of the wise, learned, and holy is ever able to do this. In a word, the world will never know and experience it. Nor indeed does the world want to hear or bear it, for it considers it the greatest folly and heresy. Therefore it is, and no doubt will remain, the art peculiar to Christians.”

For the Easter Christian, the sound of the sirens has been replaced by with the sounds of the angels’ trumpets. The sound of silence has been replaced with the song of the saints. The sound of mourning tears has been replaced with the sound of eternal laughter. For the sound of the rolling stone has reverberated through time and eternity. It not only opened the entrance to the tomb of Jesus, but also opened the gates to God’s heaven. When you hear the rolling stone, you know that the sounds of death have been replaced with the sounds of life. Amen.