“No Cover Up”
April 24, 2011 - Easter Sunday
He wanted to cover it up. A Swiss immigrant was deeply disturbed by the report brought to him by the foreman working on his new lumber mill. The mill was to provide wood for a fort under construction to be the center of a great agricultural empire in the Central Valley of California. But when water ran through the tailrace they had created, they found flakes of shiny metal.
When John Sutter got the report from his foreman James Marshall, in January of 1948 they tested the metal in secret. Learning it was gold, Sutter was dismayed and hoped to keep it quiet, to cover it up. He feared it would be the end of all his dreams of agriculture. It was. Within a couple months rumors were spreading. By August a newspaper on the east coast reported that gold had been found in California. No cover up was possible, and the California Gold Rush was on.
A small group of women made their own incredible discovery on a spring Sunday morning about one thousand, nine hundred and eighty years ago. There were two or three other women mentioned in Mark, Luke and John, but Matthew focuses on two Marys, Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary. In verse 1, she’s simply called “the other Mary,” but in a text we read on Good Friday she is identified by her husband’s name. They came early in the day to visit a tomb and show proper respect to the dead body of a loved one. They were astounded at what they found.
At first, it was not so much what they found as what they did not find. This is the consistent witness of the Gospel writers and it is the historical fact that a great deal of ink has been spilled to explain. What the women did not find was the body they had come to wash and anoint with spices and lay completely and tenderly to its final rest. They did not find the body of Jesus of Nazareth, who two days before had been brutally and publicly executed by Roman soldiers.
In chapter 27 Matthew placed the two Marys there Friday at the Crucifixion. They had watched Jesus die. Matthew 27:61 says they even watched him buried. Now they came to where they had seen Him entombed and He was missing.
The two Marys are about to make a discovery that baffles them, frightens them and ultimately transforms them. Verses 2 through 4 set up their discovery by telling us what happened even earlier in the day, before they arrived. There was an earthquake and an angel. And the stone, which Mark tells us the women worried was too heavy to move, was rolled away from the tomb’s entrance.
There were guards, Roman soldiers, as Matthew explained also in the previous chapter. The Roman governor Pilate had given the Jewish leaders a detail to guard the tomb in case Jesus’ disciples might come and steal His body and then pretend He had been raised from the dead. But the earthquake and the angel frightened the soldiers so much that they “became like dead men,” says verse 4. In other words, they were shocked into unconsciousness.
Instead of meeting the Roman guards, then, verse 5 tells us the women met the bright, awesome visitor from heaven. The angel had no desire to frighten the women, so his first words to them are, “Do not be afraid.” Then he gave them their great discovery. “…you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he is risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.”
From the other Gospels we know they did follow the angel into the tomb, but they did not find the body of Jesus. All they found were the linen grave clothes in which He’d been hastily wrapped on Friday night. So again, the first great find of Easter morning was that which was not found. The tomb was empty. Jesus was not in it.
Unlike the California gold rush, Easter did not begin with a cover up. There is absolutely no hint of conspiracy in verse 7 as the angel directs the women to “go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He is risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.’”
The empty tomb was not to be a secret. The two Marys and the other women were to make a public announcement. Which is very interesting for this reason: women in the ancient Jewish world and in antiquity in general were not regarded as credible witnesses. They did not give testimony in court. Men tended to discount the word of a woman. And that’s exactly what happened, we’re told over in Luke’s Gospel. At first, most of the disciples simply did not believe these women.
Of course their greatest find is still to come. Verse 8 says they ran away from that incredible scene of the angel and the empty tomb, “afraid yet filled with joy.” Their emotions were mixed, maybe a little like John Sutter who was surely excited and pleased to find gold, but also very worried about what it would mean for all his big farming plans. But as the women hurried off they had an encounter which would completely erase any fear or thought they might have had of keeping it all quiet.
Verse 9 begins with the incredible sentence, “Suddenly Jesus met them.” Just dwell on that for a moment. They got up that morning weeping for a dead Man. They had gone to do what little they could to pay respect to His remains and His memory. They had been devastated and amazed to find those remains missing and an angel in their place. And now, now, they meet, alive and speaking to them, that very Man. Just feel yourself in their place for a moment, and let the cascade of their emotions pour over you.
We have absolutely no proper way to translate into English what Jesus first said to them. Our TNIV translation, “Greetings,” is as good as it gets and it’s pretty lame. You meet a man raised from the dead and He says, “Hi there!”? No, the Greek word here is chairete, which had become a standard sort of meaningless greeting like our “Hello” or “How are you?” But here on the lips of the risen Lord we need to somehow appreciate its lost literal sense. Jesus’ greeting to them actually meant, “Rejoice!”
Which is exactly what the women did. They fell at His feet rejoicing while Jesus in verse 10 repeated the instructions the angel had given them. Again, there’s no question of hushing things up. “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” And we are here this morning because the women did just that. They went and told their story, and believers have been rejoicing ever since.
Here is where the Easter text usually ends. The Christian lectionary assigns these ten verses for this morning and so we usually stop right here, meeting Jesus and hearing Him speak those words of joy and peace. But the fact is there were some folks who did attempt an Easter cover up. So we’re going to go on and look at another five verses skipped over by the assigned readings.
In verse 11 we learn that those knocked out Roman guards awoke from their faint. They went to the city themselves to make a report to the Jewish priests about the earthquake, the angel, and about the missing body of Jesus. You can just see the priests shaking their bearded heads at what they heard.
Here’s how the cover up was to happen. In verse 12, the priests, who had already taken thirty pieces of silver from the Temple treasury to pay off Judas to betrayed Jesus, took even more money to pay off the soldiers. They bribed them and told them, in verse 13, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’”
This attempted Resurrection cover up was a bizarre plan if there ever was one. The soldiers were supposed to hush things up by telling everyone that they very thing had happened which they were posted there to prevent. The disciples stole the body! What’s more, they were to explain this by saying they had fallen asleep on duty!
It’s a crazy story, because falling asleep on watch was considered an offense against one’s fellow soldiers. The typical punishment was for the whole company to gather and beat or stone the offender, often to the death. It would have taken a lot of money to get these men to say they had drifted off at their posts. And that’s why in verse 14 the priests assure them they will intercede with the governor, that is, Pilate, if he gets wind of this cover story.
Verse 15 tells us that the soldiers evidently felt adequately compensated, so they went along with the cover up. “And,” Matthew says plainly, “this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.”
So that’s the great Easter cover up attempt. It’s amazing that it’s still the kind of thing you read and hear from skeptics and unbelievers a couple thousand years later. They blithely tell us that someone stole Jesus’ body or that He didn’t really die or that it was all some sort of hoax or legend, as if this kind of cover story is something new we’ve only just realized in the modern age of science.
No, the enemies of Christian faith thought up all the alternative explanations for Jesus being raised from the dead, came up with all the Resurrection cover stories a long, long time ago. We see here that they started trying the same day it all happened. They’ve tried to keep it quiet, cover it over with some other account of the facts, discredit the people who told what they found there at the empty tomb. But it can’t be covered up.
What if John Sutter and James Marshall had managed to keep their little secret? What if no word had gotten out about the gold to be found in the American River in California and in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and other mountains in California? San Francisco would not have become a boom town and might still be a sleepy little place on a quiet bay. It might have been many more years before California became a state. And “Sutter” might be the brand name on all the fruits and vegetables and rice that come to us out of all those farms in the Central Valley.
But they couldn’t hush it up. Rumors of the gold at Sutter’s mill spread and a newspaperman named Samuel Brannan heard and investigated. After taking time to set up his own store to sell prospecting supplies, Brannan walked the streets of San Francisco holding up a vial of gold for everyone to see and shouting, “Gold! Gold from the American River!” The gold in those hills, in those waters, could not be covered up. Neither can the golden truth that Jesus Christ has been raised be covered up.
People have tried, but the truth of the Resurrection keeps on being raised itself. Whenever and wherever the bleakness and despair of this world seems overwhelming, someone runs through it shouting “Christ is risen!” And hope is renewed and new life is found again. No cover up can cover it up.
Still, for us all, another sort of cover up happens all the time. One of the bleakest moments I experience as a pastor is to stand with a family as a casket containing the body of loved one is lowered into the ground. Usually, that’s it. Cemetery workers wait until everyone leaves and then come in with their front end loader and shovels and cover that beloved flesh over with earth. Come back a day or two later and even the grass is back in place. A perfect cover up.
Once or twice I’ve been with and even helped a family who wanted to do the covering themselves, shovel the clumps of clay and rock and soil over the casket. The end result is still the same. All those bodies we hugged and kissed and held, all those faces we watched smile and frown, laugh and cry, they all lie there covered up. And one day so will yours and mine. It’s the great cover up of death.
That great cover up is what makes the truth that there is no cover up of Jesus’ Resurrection so vital. Covering up the gold at Sutter’s Mill would have delayed California’s progress a bit. Covering up what happened with Jesus Christ would remove all our hope for the end of the great cover up of our bodies in the earth.
Our reading from Colossians 3:3 said that when we believe in Jesus our lives become “hidden with Christ in God,” that is, covered up in Him. And they become covered up in the ground when we die. But then we read in verse 4, “When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus’ being raised has not been covered up, and that means you and I will not be covered up in the earth forever.
Eastern Orthodox Christians, who this year are celebrating Easter on the same day with us, have a wonderful way of putting the great truths of our faith into images. They call their icons are “windows into heaven,” which let us glimpse the holy realities that we believe by faith. So I want to share with you what is pictured in the classic Greek icon of Christ’s Resurrection.
Jesus appears gloriously risen at the center, of course, of the Eastern Resurrection icon. He is standing on the broken down gates of Hades, the realm of the dead. Those gates have fallen into the form of a Cross or of the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter of “Christ.” And He is reaching down to lift Adam and Eve out of their caskets and into their own resurrected life in Him. Hades has its cover broken open. The graves of men and women are uncovered. The great covering of death is ended.
That’s the hope we celebrate here today as we remember that there was no cover up of the truth of Jesus being raised from the dead. Just like His tomb was uncovered by the angel, our own graves will be uncovered by the power of His rising. Whether it’s those grass covered plots in Oregon cemeteries, or dry, hard, bare earth like the cemetery where my family is buried in Arizona; whether it’s a burial marked with a beautiful headstone or a tragic and unknown grave no one knows; whether it’s a covering of ashes by the waters of the ocean or even tossed to the winds, the graves of those who trust in Christ will be opened and uncovered. His people will be lifted out to meet Him because He will come and meet them like He met the women by His own grave.
That’s our hope. It’s no cover up. It’s no secret. Go and live in a way that reveals Jesus Christ is risen to those around you. Hurry like the women hurried to share the Good News. It’s not meant to be covered up. We are not meant to be covered up. We are meant to live, because He lives.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2011 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj