An earth-shaking moment

I was coming down the home stretch.  It was the last ten minutes of the last lecture of the class, and I was warming up for my closing comments.

Then it happened.  The classroom, situated on the top floor of the building, began to roll and sway.  Some students, eyes wide, froze in their seats; some screamed and dove under the tables.

Me?  I stood there watching the pandemonium.  It was all over in a few seconds, and when the shaking stopped, I suggested matter-of-factly that we consider the class finished and all leave by way of the stairs before an aftershock hit.

I can be calm like that during earthquakes.  Having lived in California all my life, I’ve been through enough of them.

But that’s not saying I enjoy them.  Inside, part of me still reacts like a little kid fearing whatever monstrous power could make solid ground suddenly seem so insubstantial.  Californians, moreover, live with the dim but constant awareness that The Big One could hit anytime.  I don’t know that I’ll be calm then.

According to Matthew, the death of Jesus set off a Big One:

The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.  (Matt 27:51b-53, NIV)

Here, Matthew describes events not mentioned in the other gospels or anywhere else.  There was a violent earthquake that split rocks (the verb, from which we get the English word “schism,” is the same one used for tearing the curtain) and opened tombs.  Presumably, these tombs were the kind hewn out of rock themselves, standing above ground and sealed with a large stone.

Matthew’s text is actually a little ambiguous.  He mentions three distinct happenings: (a) some “saints” were raised to life, who then (b) came out of their tombs, and (c) went into Jerusalem.  The sequence is clear, but the timing is not.  Which of these happened while Jesus was still on the cross, and which after his resurrection?  Some scholars argue that (a) and even (b) happened while Jesus was still on the cross (then where did they hang out until Easter?  Starbucks?).  Others place all three on or after Easter, sometimes even suggesting that here, Matthew was actually referring to the earthquake that he will mention again later, the one that accompanied the unsealing of Jesus’ tomb (cf. 28:2).

We may never know.  Does it matter?  What’s the point?

Matthew hasn’t even reached the story of Jesus’ burial yet, and already he’s talking about resurrection.  Imagine the scenario.  The sky has already gone mysteriously and ominously dark.  Then the ground lurches and bucks beneath your feet.  You hear rumors of graves rumbling open.  Put yourself in the place of a witness to these events, and possibly a superstitious one at that.  What do you fear will happen next?  The judgment of God?  Zombie apocalypse?

What happens next is new life.

Matthew wants us to understand: this isn’t just about our future hope.  In the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death has already been defeated.  New life belongs not just to Jesus, but to the saints.  Now.  One truth is inseparable from the other.

When Jesus’ friend Lazarus fell ill, his sisters Mary and Martha hoped that Jesus would come to save him as he had so many others.  They sent an urgent message, but to no avail.

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, seemingly too late, Martha went out to meet him.  Like many Jews, Martha expected a mass resurrection of the faithful in the last days.  After Lazarus died, this was her only remaining hope.  When Jesus actually told her, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23, NIV), she thought he meant later, in the distant future.  He responded,

“I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (vss. 25-26)

Shortly thereafter, he brought Lazarus out of the tomb.

How shall we live, when we know that death no longer has the last word?

4 thoughts on “An earth-shaking moment

  1. I always am gratified when you end with a question. The answers are up to us, aren’t they? Well, let me offer one facet of an answer that I have no doubt will take many of us to fill in. When I was 20 (a LONG time ago) I read a quote that is one of the answers: Make sure when it comes your time to die, it’s all you have to do (James Elliott, killed in 1954 in Ecuador). Since that day it made me think that IF what we believe that our tenets of faith are true, especially about death, how do this man’s words play out? I decided that it means you live as if around dinner time, 1800 hours or so, you have on your “to-do” list – Die, as if it is simply the next thing. If that is the case, then what else is so important and what is just stuff to do? If plays out in striving to live a life of decision and will, as a believer, that forces everyone around you to examine and question theirs.

    When Bob Dylan did the unthinkable years ago and did three fairly overt Christian albums (now CD’s) he refused interviews. To this day, he refuses them with just a very small handful of exceptions. And even in those he maintains the same idea, don’t look to him for answers, look for them yourself. The Christian church wanted a celebrity hero and he refused leaving the Christian community to ask itself, “NOW what?”…which was exactly the point! I loved him for that. Is he a believer now? I do not know and that is between him and God. What was more important was what am I going to do about what he sang about? What am I going to do next, in the event I die even after typing these words?

    I will continue to live as I have lived, accepting how far I can reach today knowing I will reach farther tomorrow. And the very small handful of things that absolutely must be done before I die have long ago been done. I hope I do not have to prove these words today as I want to interact with your posts for a long time. But if I do, you are correct that death does not have the last word as long as we face it and truly plan for it. All this is one of the reasons I left my career several years earlier than I planned and offered my particular skills in the service of my country and went to Afghanistan. Because death did not have the last word and dying is the only left on my to-do list. The rest is just stuff.

    That is just one facet of the answer to your question. Sorrry for its length, you’ll probably want to edit it if you decide to post it.

    1. Edit? No, though I’m not sure I understood your sentence about dinnertime…
      “Dying is the only thing left on my to-do list. The rest is just stuff.” There’s freedom in that, if we’re willing to accept it.

  2. That was my favorite earthquake 🙂 I think your last words right before it hit were “desolate wasteland” or something. Perfect timing.

    I also appreciate the final question. I often feel like I don’t have enough time in the day. But I have amazed at how much more productive I am on those days when I take time to focus on Christ. I never get everything done but I am more satisfied with what is done. And when night comes, it’s more restful and I wake up feeling renewed. Perhaps when a life is spent focused on Christ, death is merely a rest and the life that follows is one of renewal rather than regret.

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