“Mercy in the Open Tomb”

Exodus 15:1-18


            In a cemetery in Hanover, Germany, there is a tomb which is known as the “opened grave”. It is the tomb of a noblewoman, Henriette von Ruling, who died in 1782. Her tomb, her above ground vault is immense and is constructed of heavy stone with a large and imposing tombstone resting on it. The stone bears an inscription written in German, but translated says, “This tomb, bought for eternity, may never be opened.” Let me read that again.

            In spite of this inscription, Henriette’s strongly fortified tomb has, in fact, been opened. You see, shortly after her burial, a birch tree started to grow at the base slab. Over the years, the tree grew larger and wider. Slowly, but steadily, the tree’s roots and trunk forced its way and raised the tombstone and opened the grave. So despite the claim of the inscription to never be opened, the tomb is now known as the “opened grave.” It’s inscription forbidding entrance into the tomb speaks in vain above the yawning crypt.

            Almost two thousand years ago, another tomb was made as secure as possible just outside of Jerusalem. Every precaution was taken to prevent entrance into it. The tomb had been cut out within solid stone and a heavy boulder was place over its opening. A couple of soldiers were placed at the gravesite in order to protect against any tampering. Finally, the tomb was sealed to prevent any movement of the stone. Undoubtedly, it was as secure as a tomb could possibly be.

            Yet only 36 hours after that Palestinian tomb had been secured, it was discovered open. The boulder was rolled away; the guards were gone; the seal lay broken on the ground. Most significant of all … the lifeless body once laid in the tomb was gone! All the security precautions had been in vain. The tomb was now empty.

            The fact that the tomb of Jesus was empty took everyone by surprise. It surprised the women who arrived there early that Sunday morning, expecting to anoint Jesus’ dead body for proper burial. It surprised the soldiers, who earlier had considered it foolish to guard a dead man’s tomb. But now, Matthew says, “they shook and became like dead men” (28:4). It surprised the priests, who had to make up a story to try to explain the missing body. It even surprised Jesus’ disciples, who stubbornly refused to believe the startling news of the resurrection. Everyone was surprised at this dramatic turn of events in which Jesus rose from the dead.

            In this surprising turn of events, the empty tomb of Jesus, God snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. God’s great mercy to His beloved people was demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

            But this wasn’t the first time in which God had waged a startling last-minute victory. The Old Testament reading from Exodus 15 depicts another battle scene. You’ve got the Israelites fleeing from the pursuit of Pharaoh’s army. Pharaoh’s chariots and warriors have surrounded God’s people on one side, and then on the other side, you have the raging Red Sea. Before Pharaoh gives the command for his army to swoop in for the slaughter, he gloats over his impending victory. Pharaoh says, “I will pursue, I will overtake them. I will divide the spoils; I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them” (Exodus 15:9).

            Yet, in what seemed like inevitable success for the enemy, God works a surprise. In the face of utter defeat and annihilation of God’s people, the Lord pulls off a victory. He makes the Red Sea into dry land. “The surging waters stood firm like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea” (Exodus 15:8b) And in God’s great surprise, He delivered His people to safety by allowing them to escape to the other side of the sea on totally dry land. And once they were safe, God destroyed His opponents. As the Egyptians were pursing God’s people, God’s restraining hand was removed and the walls of water collapsed on the Egyptians, drowning every last one of them.

            In this surprising turn of events at the Red Sea, God snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. His great mercy to His beloved people was demonstrated by delivering them through the sea.

            Centuries after God’s deliverance of His people through the Red Sea, the enemy once again boasted of victory. Like Pharaoh of old, Satan gloated over his conquest at the cross. When Jesus died and when His body was laid in the tomb, Satan and his little demons celebrated their apparent triumph. The prince of darkness thought he had delivered the final victorious blow against Jesus when His body was laid in the grave. He who had the power of death, the devil, seemed to have successfully wield that power against the Messiah.

            But then the God of all surprises turned the tables on Satan. While in the very clutches of death and hell, Jesus overcame death and hell. The apparent victim became the true victor! He who was dead, now was alive again.

            The Apostle Peter declared to those who had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, “God raised him {Jesus} from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). Satan did his utmost to shackle Jesus in death, to keep Him permanently in its grip. But no matter how hard Satan tried, Christ completely disarmed him, Christ victoriously burst forth from death’s ancient prison. Jesus emerged victorious proclaiming, “I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18).

            In this surprising turn of events in the spiritual realm, God snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. His great mercy to His beloved people was demonstrated in the conquest over sin, Satan, and death itself.

            But the most wondrous surprise of all is the fact that God’s victory is yours as well. Christ shares His Easter victory over death with you!

            God’s victory over Pharaoh at the Red Sea meant deliverance for His people Israel. Today, God’s ultimate victory over Satan means deliverance for you. God’s surprise continues today when He uses the water of baptism to deliver us from the grasp of Satan and sin. Paul in our reading to the Romans says, “We were buried therefore with him {Jesus} by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:4-5).

            Christ’s resurrection is not only history, or His story, but it is our story as well. As a baptized believer in Christ, being one with Christ you share in His death and resurrection. Just as death no longer has dominion over Jesus, so it no longer terrorizes you who are in Christ by faith. You no longer are condemned by sin, because its penalty of death has been paid in full by your risen Lord and Savior.

            We who are members of Christ’s body, the Church, we share in His conquest over death. We do so by the mercy of God. We are the beneficiaries of His victory over the forces of darkness. When Jesus emerged alive from the depths of death and laid claim to the keys of Hades, He do so for you, for your salvation and your future resurrection. By His mercy we share in His everlasting triumph.

            On Easter morning, a class of seven-year-olds gather together with their Sunday School teacher. The teacher tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection. In order to keep these kid’s attention, she asked them, “What do you think was Jesus’ first word when He came out of the tomb alive?” A little girl raised her hand and the teacher called on her. The girl jumped to her feet, stretched out her hands and shouted: “Surprise! Jesus’ first word was ‘Surprise’!

            This child understood the essence of Easter. It is God’s greatest surprise! It is His victory surprise. And because Christ rose on Easter, Jesus will one day raise you up from your grave, from your death in that final jubilant surprise of resurrection. Amen.

            Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.


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