While it is fashionable to decry the current abysmal lack of biblical literacy in western culture, its one advantage is that preachers often have the opportunity to tell someone a story for the first time. Not on Easter though. One of the main difficulties of Easter preaching is overcoming the fact that nearly everyone arrives upon the scene already knowing how the story ends. Even (perhaps especially) those who only worship God on Christmas and Easter walk through the church doors confident that they know what they are about to hear.
This is unfortunate for many reasons, not least because the Gospel account of the witness’s reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb and the message issued by the man in white is not a confident sense that the inevitable has finally come to pass, but rather a jarring sense of surprise bordering on fear.
Of course, what really stunned the women into silence was the message the young man in white announced, beginning with the disarming, “Do not be alarmed” and then going on, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Now here comes the Gospel! “He has been raised: he is not here.” Here I always think it is all-important to be reminded on Easter that the message isn’t simply “Jesus is risen” as we announce to the ringing of bells, but that we need to listen closely to the passive voice of the Easter message: “He has been raised.” In other words, Jesus is not the actor in this matter of resurrection but is the one acted upon...God is the actor in the action of Easter, the very One to whom we heard Jesus crying out in that eerie midday darkness as he hung upon the cross...It is God’s raising of Jesus on the first day of the week that is the answer to Jesus’s cry of dereliction of Friday - news sufficiently terrorizing and amazing that it stunned the women into silence initially - but not forever, thank God!
What tools do planners of worship have at their disposal to help them recreate the world-shaking sense of surprise that is appropriate to the announcement that Christ is risen?
John Rollefson (2008): 11-12 April 2009: Easter Eve/Day. Homily Service: 42:2, 98-99.
John Rollefson is pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.