By Paul Koch –
I remember the first time I walked into this sanctuary and saw this magnificent painting by Hillary Asbury. I was completely stunned. I stood there towards the back and then slowly walked down one side of the church trying to take it all in. For the next few days when no one else was here, I would stand in various parts of the church and I found new details would jump out at me: new movements and even emotions were drawn out as I pondered the painting. Hilary named this work “Empty.” And that makes sense. After all, the blood red sky pulls your eyes away from the place of the skull to the brilliant white sun rising in East. And there, below the light of the new day, stands the gaping mouth of the tomb. Its black void proclaims the sentiments of the angel that first Easter morning, “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”
And yet, things change with time. The more that this work of art becomes a part of our sanctuary, the more we simply get used to it, and we treat it almost as if it had always been there. I’ve realized that the title just might mean far more that an empty tomb. Sure, the tomb is empty. But if you think about it, the whole painting is empty as well. The crosses on the far side stand empty, the landscape is empty and of course the tomb is empty. It’s like looking into a crater left by a massive explosion or a meteor strike. When we stand back and take in this scene as a whole, we are left looking at the aftermath of something big. What is left is the emptiness, what is left is the remnant of something so significant the world would never be the same again. It is empty because it is a proclamation of something that moved on, that kept going, that in fact has never stopped. For me, when I look at this work of art, my eye is not only drawn from the cross to the empty tomb but my imagination is drawn beyond the canvases. I get caught up in the idea of a Good News that has never stopped moving.
And movement is what Palm Sunday is all about. This day is the most action packed day in the whole church year. We move from the outside to the inside of the church, making a grand procession with palm branches in our hands. We move singing “All Glory Laud and Honor, To You Redeemer King” as we finish reading the text of our Lord’s movement into the city of Jerusalem mounted on a Donkey. He comes, in a triumphant movement into the city hearing the crowd call out for their own salvation, “Hosanna!” Oh the joy and happiness, the celebration and grandeur of that moment. They paraded our Lord into the city laying palm branches and their own cloaks before him.
But even in the midst of these great shouts and cries of the crowd, we hear the echo of something empty. For today we stand on an overlook, a mountain peak, if you will, with the whole week that is to come spread out before us. We know that the movement from the triumphant entry to the betrayal in the Garden on Thursday night is a movement that shows how empty the cries of the crowds really are. We know that they turn from saying, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” to shouting, “Crucify him!” Perhaps we can detect the emptiness in their tone, perhaps we shake our heads in disapproval because we know where this is all going and we judge their shallow cheers. But we have to wonder how different their emptiness is compared to our own.
This great story is such a story that our own lives get caught up in it. In a very real way the story of our Lord Jesus Christ is our story; it is the story of our faith, the story of our hope, the story of our salvation. And just as his story exposes the emptiness in the cries of the crowd, so it reveals our own emptiness. Perhaps it’s not an empty cry of “Hosanna,” rather it is the emptiness of our hands that comes into focus as we encounter again this incredible movement of our Lord from triumphant entry to cross and tomb.
Nothing quite challenges our notion of worthiness than the events of this week. When we look across the landscape and see the empty remains of the great work that our Lord did, when we take time to meditate upon a blood soaked cross on which the Lord of life died for our sins, one thing becomes increasingly clear. Whatever we thought we would offer to our Lord, whatever we believed that we had accomplished, it isn’t enough. The events of this week strip out of our hands any good deed that we believed in, any notion that our own cleverness or dedication could aid in our salvation. No, we end up with empty hands before the cross of Christ – contributing nothing.
But the great movement of our Lord, the great story of his life, death and resurrection leads us not to despair but to hope. Truly our Lord takes from us all those deeds we would put our trust in. He empties our hands of them. But he also takes all those deeds you know were sinful and wrong, those things you try and hide from your God, he empties you of them as well. He takes it all and he bears them in his flesh. So he is pierced for our sins. He is wounded for our false hopes and misdeeds. He dies so that we might live. And in his lifeless body all our sins, all that would separate us from God, is buried in that tomb.
And then on the dawn of the eighth day, as the light breaks forth across the landscape, we find that the tomb is empty. The Father receives the sacrifice the Son and now fills you with a new thing; with love, with compassion, with good works. He fills you with the constant movement of the living Word of Christ. He fills you with forgiveness itself.
Let us join together this week and marvel at the cost of our forgiveness, let us receive in our empty hands again and again the love of Christ. For in Christ alone you are empty no more.