Date: April 21, 1935
EASTER SUNRISE SERVICE
The angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead: and, behold, He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see Him; lo, I have told you. And they departed quickly from the sepulcher with fear and great joy and did run to bring His disciples word. – Matthew 28:5-8
IT is to commemorate the greatest morning of all history that we are met at this unusual hour. More glorycharged and exultant than the dawn of a nation’s final victory after a night of blood and battle, more penetrating and permanent in its power and blessing than any sunrise upon a new day of national promise, more sacred even than the first daybreaks of creation, is this glorious, triumphant Easter morn, this resurrection dawn, this day of gleaming conquest over death’s cold, clutching grip.
Well do we congregate at this early hour, and well do you, our friends in the far-flung reaches of this radio service, worship with us at the break of day; for Easter is a climax to all human experiences, a day of days. The highest pinnacles of human projects and achievements, when paralleled with the sacred significance of Easter, are as anthills beside Mount Everest. The most ingenious triumphs of human brain and brawn, when compared with the resurrection record, lose their importance and become as pebbles beside Gibraltar or as dewdrops in relation to unplumbed ocean depths.
For if Easter were erased from history, men would be reduced to human machines, controlled by whims of a fitful fate, destined, when run down or worn out, to be discarded on the scrap-heap of failure, the silence of the graveyard. Seal the stone before the rock-hewn grave, and you have sealed the world into unrelievable sorrow. Let Christ remain bound in His shrouds, and all history must be rewritten, with chaos substituted for progress, deceit for honesty, and the dirge of defeat for the ringing anthems of the resurrection victory. Accept Easter in the light of Scriptural truth and promise, greet the resurrected Christ with the sincerity of a faith that exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” and men are exalted as the sons of God, blessed by the merciful bounties of Heaven, and perpetually strengthened by the vision of a life in a new and better homeland beyond the grave.
What better can we do, then, as we would pay to God and to His resurrected Son, our living Savior, these daybreak tributes of our believing hearts than to turn back, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to the first Easter story and to strengthen our hearts and lives by considering
THE GLORIOUS EASTER EVANGEL
To this end let us recreate in our minds the worldmoving events of the Savior’s resurrection and then apply the pointed lessons taught by the imperishable Easter exultation: “He is not here; He is risen!”
THE GLORIOUS ASSURANCE OF EASTER
Less than forty hours had elapsed between the Savior’s death on Good Friday afternoon and the first visit of the followers of the Crucified to the rock sepulcher which Joseph of Arimathea, the aristocratic benefactor, had generously provided for the repose of Jesus’ body. Hardly a day and a half had intervened, a few hours more than the Sabbath on which the customary rites for the dead were prohibited. Yet those fleeting hours were the prelude to the most startling changes of all human experience. To shortsighted, skeptical vision this change was not apparent. On that Passover eve a shriek of intense anguish, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” had reechoed over the gloom of Golgotha as the fever-racked frame of a Martyr collapsed in death. When, a few dreary moments later, the sun set upon that day of the crucifixion, three crosses planted on a bare hill were silhouetted against the grayish background of the Palestinian dusk; and the central cross seemed to symbolize the starkest tragedy, the deepest defeat. And when that sun rose again on the morning of the third day, the city of Jerusalem slept on securely; for the crucified Galilean, so their blind bigotry concluded, lay harmless in the grave. On that first morning of the new week even His disciples believed that the clutch of death and decay had once more recorded its gruesome victory.
So it was not with hope-filled hearts that the first followers of the Crucified made their painful pilgrimage to the sealed and guarded tomb in the hush of the early morning watches. They were laden with spices and ointment, for they had come to continue the burial rites that had been interrupted by the intervening Sabbath. They would still serve Christ, albeit a dead Christ.
Now, who were these early morning pilgrims, destined to be the first witnesses of the resurrection glory? Today, when murder trials are covered by an army of publicists, we might expect that the resurrection would be staged before an immense throng of curious spectators. But our ways are not God’s ways. The Easter-message was to be proclaimed, as were so many of God’s mighty dispensations, to a restricted, chosen group; it was announced to three women. Perhaps prophetic of the important role which their spiritual sisters were to assume in the growth of the Church, these women who had lingered to the last under the cross were the first at the grave and the first to hear and proclaim the resurrection message. God give us women of this devotion—mothers and wives, sisters and daughters—who can distinguish the froth of our modern follies from the nobler realities of loyal service to their Savior! God give us true and trusting women for the Church and for the nation, daughters of God with the love of Christ in their hearts and the reverence of God in their lives!
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and Salome, the mother of James and John, these three first witnesses of the resurrection, were not daughters of priestly, politically prominent, or socially important families; for this phase of the Easter-story, as incidents in the crucifixion, and indeed the entire Gospel-message were to emphasize the glorious fact that all, rich and poor, man and woman, priest and layman, could approach the holy Christ of God and receive the benediction of His mercy. And while we thank God for the assistance of men of wealth, like Joseph of Arimathea, who acknowledged the dead Savior before Pilate; for the guidance of political leaders like Nicodemus, who was not ashamed to plead for the dead Christ before the Roman governor; for the confession of prominent officials, like that of the centurion who, in the shadow of the cross, found in the Crucified the Son of the eternal God, we particularly raise our grateful hearts to Him in acknowledging the grace that made His mercy wide enough for the common folk; comprehensive enough for three socially insignificant, middle-class women of Jerusalem; condescending enough to receive the thief on the cross. Sweeping aside all the barriers which men persistently raise in the attempt to herd their fellow-men together according to standards of race or color, position or authority, wealth and influence, cultural and intellectual attainments, this universal appeal of God’s grace in the crucified, but resurrected Savior comes to all the children of men without respect of person, but with the same common promise of blessedness forever.
Yet the burial rites, so carefully planned by these devout women, were not to be performed. When the three pilgrims arrived at the grave, the Easter miracle had occurred. The earth had been shaken by vibrant tremors; the seal which Christ’s anxious enemies had carefully placed on the grave was broken; and the immense stone which had caused the women distressing concern had been rolled away from the door of the tomb. There sat an angel of the Lord, his countenance like lightning, his raiment white as the snow; a heavenly messenger, altogether so august and awe inspiring that we are told “for fear of him the keepers did shake and became as dead men.” Before the women could overcome their fright and amazement at the sight of this celestial herald, they were even more startled by his announcement, the first in all history, of the Savior’s resurrection: “Fear not ye; for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.”
“He is not here; He is risen,” these words leave no room for any of the many substitute theories that would deny the resurrection of Christ or explain away the very heart of this miracle of miracles. It was no vision of hallucinated women, this triumphant rising of Christ from the bonds of the grave. It was no fraud, as the chagrined churchmen of that day insisted in their endeavor to laugh off the resurrection and spread abroad the lie that the disciples had stolen the body. It was no instance of suspended animation, apparent death, or premature burial. All these and other protesting theories are shattered by the divinely inspired record that the Christ who commended His soul into His Father’s hands as He died on Good Friday was resurrected on Easter and lives and reigns unto all eternity, lives and reigns with the power which inspires His followers to exult this morning:—
I know that my Redeemer lives.
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
He lives, He lives, who once was dead;
He lives, my ever-living Head.
By the truth which the resurrection-message brought to those women and conveys to us today the open grave becomes the symbol of the open heaven. It proves the deity of our royal Redeemer, Jesus, the Christ. It places the seal of Heaven’s approval and acceptance upon His entire self-giving. It demonstrates His power over death and justifies His challenge: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” It offers the deep pledge of the risen Lord Himself: “Because I live, ye shall live also,” and triumphantly promises that, though this marred and imperfect body of ours must return to the dust from which it was taken, though the skeletal hand of death will reach out to snatch us away from the land of the living, though you and I are destined to corruption and decay, we know that through Christ death is but the passage from the gloom of sin to the radiance of eternity. We hear Christ’s comforting message: “He that believeth on Me hath everlasting life”; and: “In My Father’s house are many mansions. . . . I go to prepare a place for you”; and at the open grave the full truth dawns upon our souls that Easter, above all question or quibble, means defeated death, resurrected life, and the glories of eternity to all who accept this imperishable hope of their risen Savior.
THE GLORIOUS RESPONSIBILITIES IMPOSED BY EASTER
Need I remind you, then, that Easter is too high and holy to pass by our hearts and lives without leaving its sacred and indelible imprint? The resurrection-message mightily affected those first witnesses; for the startling truth that the Christ for whom they would perform the burial rites had suddenly disappeared from the confines of His tomb filled them with supreme awe, and they left the sepulcher with the deepest reverence their lives had ever known.
Would to God that there were more of this reverence in our modem contemplation of Easter! Too often we have made it a devitalized, innocuous day for children with rabbits and chicks and gamboling lambs. Tradesmen rub gleeful hands as they review the seasonal increase in the sales of millinery and other apparel. Poetic souls rhapsodize on vernal beauties. While there is room for all this in the proper spirit and proportion, yet when Easter is interpreted solely in terms material or reduced to a nature festival, it becomes a paganized holiday. Give us—and this is the appeal of the Church—a reverent Easter!
The early visitors at the empty tomb also found a new happiness. St. Matthew records that they were animated with “great joy.” The unexpected restoration of their Savior and the fulfilment of His promises banished their somber sorrows, and their hearts leaped in exultation. Today, in this decade of disillusion, we frantically grope for the joy of life; but with much sadness and sorrow on every hand, with cherished hopes crushed and high ambitions thwarted, grimly skeptical men and women are facing the question-mark of the future, almost ready to resign themselves to the pessimism of defeat. If only they would not blind themselves to the joy-filled blessings with which Easter can endow their souls and lives! For here, at the unsealed sepulcher, is the end of humanity’s search for abiding happiness. Here is the joy of forgiven sin, the gladness that comes through the strengthening companionship of a living Savior and His purifying Spirit. Here is the answer to every unsympathetic turn of life, the solution to our most grievous problems—the simple, but profound faith which teaches us that through Christ’s resurrection there is, in the next world, a compensation for earthly sorrows and that “the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Here, finally, is the joy that triumphs over the blight and paralysis of death, that soothes our torn hearts when we stand beside the earthly remains of a loved one, with the conviction that those who die in the Lord will live forever in the blessed reunion of eternity.
Because of all this, Easter was the most joyous festival that the early Church knew; and as we remind ourselves that the gift of this resurrection joy is the free gift of Heaven’s grace,—no payment of our virtues, no reward of our good deeds, no honor for our accomplishments,—simply the undeserved and unmerited mercies of the resurrected Lord,—may the dawn of this Easter bring the daybreak of salvation into all the hearts toward which the Spirit now speeds these words!
For those of us who know and with all our hearts believe and trust the Easter joy our text brings a sacred privilege and obligation. These daybreak witnesses were not to conceal this epochal announcement of the resurrection. Emphatically the angel tells them: “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead; and, behold, He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see Him.” And hardly had this missionary command been issued, when we read: “They departed quickly from the sepulcher . . . and did run to bring His disciples word.”
The call of this disturbed hour is the appeal for twentieth-century disciples, young and old, who with the haste that this high message requires will bring to others the truth and joy of the Easter-message. How unhappy, by contrast with the eagerness of the three women, is the lethargy and indifference of Christians who perhaps in an entire lifetime have never told perishing souls that the Christ who died for their salvation rose again for their victory! If only this Easter would awaken within hitherto apathetic hearts the desire to speak the resurrection-message into the very souls of some of our country’s misguided millions! If only by the indwelling of the Spirit this Easter would stimulate that heroic type of Christianity which cannot refrain from speaking of Christ, from pleading with men to repent and through Christ to return to their heavenly Father! If only this Easter would mark the turning-point, after these years of restricted activities in the Church’s forward march, for the extension of the kingdom of Christ here on earth!
It will take courage to tell men of their Savior, and there will be rebuffs and disappointments; but just as these women hurrying away from the empty grave on that first missionary journey met Christ on the way, so you who today pledge yourselves to become witnesses unto Him will meet Christ on the paths of your duty. He will come to you, and you will feel His presence in the realism of this Easter faith. He will direct you. He will strengthen you. He will be with you alway, even unto your end on this earth, the finale of life, which, because of the Easter glory, is but the prelude to an exalted eternity.
All this is pledged to you by this promise of the risen Christ: “Where I am, there shall also My servant be.” God grant that you may receive this blessing with believing hearts, translate it into a sanctified life, and preserve it unto the victorious eternity of Christ’s ransomed saints! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.