Rolling Away the Stones
April 9, 2023
Easter Sunrise Service
The Rev. Dr. Tim Hart-Andersen
Jeremiah 31:1-6; Mark 16:1-8
Did you notice how on that first Easter morning, the stone plays a prominent role? On the way to the tomb the women wonder how they’ll get past it. They probably saw it moved into place Friday evening. It was very big. Other gospels are concerned about the stone, as well. Matthew throws in a massive earthquake that morning, loosening the stone so a burly angel can push it aside.
Easter depends on rolling away the stone.
What was the purpose of that stone? To protect the grave from thieves? To discredit any talk of Jesus not having actually died?
That stone did a lot more. It closed the door on possibility. It sealed in the night. It shut down hope. It cut off life. It denied access. It kept resurrection trapped and locked
down. The stone was an ending. A termination. The very real and heavy representation of Jesus’ last words on the cross: It is finished. The stone is a dead end, like those dead ends we come up against in our own lives – where there’s nowhere else to go, no exit from circumstances that fence us in, no other options, no way out. We’ve all been there.
Some of you may remember an obscure Leon Russell song that has this chorus:
“Roll away the stone Don’t leave me here all alone Resurrect me and protect me Don’t leave me layin’ here What will they do in two thousand years?”
That’s a good question. What would we do if the tomb never opened? Easter needs that stone to move out of the way and when it does, two things happen: it sets Jesus free, and it shows the tomb is empty. If that stone had never moved, the tomb would not have opened, and Easter may never have happened.
Remember when Jesus had entered Jerusalem a week earlier to loud hosannas? He had said that the very stones would cry out if his followers were silenced. Perhaps he was thinking ahead to Easter. After all, in the aftermath of the crucifixion, the disciples were huddled in Jerusalem, fearful and hushed. Silenced. Grieving. Afraid. Maybe the first Easter Alleluia was the sound of the stone rolling away – with an angel choir singing backup.
Mark seems especially concerned with the stone. It’s the only gospel where people worry about it on the way to the tomb. What will we do when we get there with that stone? The women want to anoint the dead body with burial spices, but they don’t know how or even if they can get into the tomb.
We don’t know what rolls away the stone – one of Easter’s many mysteries – and the women don’t either, but when they get there, it’s gone. And then a nice young man dressed in white tells them to go to Galilee to find Jesus. Instead, the terrified women turn and run, saying nothing to anyone, or so we are told.
The women know the significance of the missing stone. The dead body they came to anoint is no longer there – and they don’t see a risen Jesus. Mark is the only gospel with no resurrection appearance. The stone rolled away is the signal that it’s Easter. It lets us know Jesus has risen. For Easter to happen, for new life to emerge, for light to break into shadow-filled places, the stones must roll away.
Sometimes they don’t roll away quickly. Ari Shapiro spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last week. In his book, The Best Strangers in the World, he tells of meeting people all over the globe and in those conversations coming to see the world in new ways.
Ten years ago, he visited Ukraine to report on the uprising in that nation that threw off an authoritarian regime and prompted Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. He was there during Passover, and Shapiro, a Jew himself, wanted to hear how Ukrainian Jews were remembering their liberation from enslavement in Egypt in the context of what was happening in their nation at that moment.
He talked with a Rabbi in Kyiv. The rabbi said to him, “We started our liberation three thousand years ago, and we still are in the process.”
Some stones take a long time to roll away. It can be agonizingly slow, as those who have waited for their own liberation understand. But the long night of waiting and hoping does end, and the light of dawn rises. God makes a way out of no way.
Long ago the prophet said as Israel returned from exile, “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” (Jeremiah 31:2)
Grace in the wilderness.
A few weeks ago a man named Sidney Holmes found grace in the wilderness. He walked out of prison after 34 years. A Black man in Florida, he had been wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to 400 years. The stone had been rolled across his life, but he never gave up hope. This happens all too often. “Black Americans are seven times more likely than white Americans to be falsely convicted of a serious crime,” according to Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative – and if it’s a drug offense that number goes up to 19 times. (https://eji.org/news/study-shows-race-is-substantial-factor-in-wrongful-convictions)
He has every reason to be bitter, but Holmes says he bears no rancor over his time in prison. “With the Christian faith I have, I can’t have hate.” he says. “I just have to keep moving” – and move he did, right out of the shadows into the light, as God’s people have always done. Grace in the wilderness. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2023/03/15/sidney-holmes-exonerated-robbery-florida/11478671002/)
Easter becomes real for us by rolling away the stones in our lives. We can get to Easter, to resurrection, to the dawn after a long night, only after the stones are rolled away. Think of the young people living today at Nicollet Square in south Minneapolis, many of whom were unhoused before; that stone has now rolled away. Think of the children at 21st Century Academy at Liberty Church in north Minneapolis whose lives had been constrained by poverty and racism, but who now see a future with more possibility; stones rolling away. I think of a friend who’s now sober; that stone rolled away 30 years ago.
Easter isn’t only about rising from the grave; it happens whenever new life breaks through.
What stones need to be moved aside in our lives? What barriers do we face to the new life promised on Easter?
Where can we roll away stones that keep hope locked down and joy closed off?
We are an Easter people. Our work is to find grace in the wilderness, to roll away stones, so the light and life and love of God might be set free in our lives and in the world.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!