After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. 2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. 5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” 8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:1-10)
Seven words changed his life. Seven simple words. Private Michael Delaney lived in a frightening time. Our country was at war with itself. During the Civil War, America saw terrible battles and experienced loss of life on an unprecedented scale. When you think of the tens of thousands of men who fell to muskets and bayonets, cannon and canister, you can’t blame a man for being scared to go into battle. But Private Delaney had sworn an oath. He was a soldier in Colorado. And when his battalion was ordered to march down to New Mexico to fight the Confederates, he begged his commanding officer to let him stay behind and take care of his young wife. But there was nothing the officer could do. They had all sworn an oath and now they had to fight. So as the unit started marching south, Private Delaney quietly snuck out of formation and walked away.
When they finally found him a few months later, it was a quick trial. He was charged with desertion. It didn’t help his case that he had a bad reputation of being an undisciplined soldier who was often drunk while on duty. And now, he had run away. A jury of his peers reached a swift decision, and he heard seven fateful words, ‘The Court finds Private Michael Delaney, guilty.’ For his crime, he was to be executed.
On July 18, 1863, Delaney woke up in the dark and came to the slow realization that it wasn’t all a bad dream. It was real. He had waited five months for the day of his death. He knew he would die, they just hadn’t decided when. Can you imagine waking up in a cell morning after morning with that hanging over your head? Kicking yourself over and over for the bad decision that you made? Trying to deal with the guilt of what comes from your past?
On Easter morning, there were some men who could relate to Michael Delaney. They were men who woke up in the dark, rubbed the sleep out of their eyes, and came to the slow realization that it wasn’t a bad dream. It was real. Jesus was dead, and they had deserted him. Oh, they had talked big just a couple days earlier. They said nothing would make them run. They would even die for Jesus. But then, in the darkness, when the soldiers came to arrest him…they panicked. Jesus’ closest friends deserted him and fled into the night.
They were so scared that they didn’t go to the crucifixion. The women and John had to tell them how Jesus died, how he cried out, ‘It is finished!’ and then breathed his last. Some of the ladies wanted to go early Sunday morning to anoint the body. They needed help moving the heavy stone that closed the tomb, but none of the disciples was willing to help. Sometimes your past is just too painful to confront. So they let the ladies deal with the dead, and they just laid there, holding their guilt.
The past has a way of catching up with you, doesn’t it? Have you ever been like Michael Delaney or Jesus’ disciples? Waking up in the dark and coming to the slow realization that what happened really wasn’t a bad dream? Maybe you failed a friend or your family. Maybe you failed your God. The guilt weighs heavily upon you, but you don’t want to think about it.
So how do you deal with it? Each of us has a favorite way of handling our guilt. Some of us make bargains with ourselves. ‘If this works out, I’ll never do it again…’ Some of us try to make it up to the people that we hurt. We shower them with affection, or we overcompensate with over-the-top gestures of kindness. And some of us try to pretend it never happened. ‘Just don’t think about it. Let the ladies deal with the dead.’ Yet none of these ways can free us from our past. They’re just band-aids we try to stick over the gaping wound of unresolved guilt. To fix your past, you need something else.
On July 18, 1863, Private Delaney heard seven words that changed his life. But not the seven words of the jury. Rather, it was seven words from the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Five months after Delaney’s conviction, President Lincoln used one of the greatest powers of his office and wrote seven words that changed a young man’s life. He wrote: ‘Let him fight instead of being shot.’
In that moment, Delaney was pardoned, freed from his past with seven words. Just like that…a past that should have condemned him, a guilt that should have meant death, was taken away. He was free. Leave it to Lincoln to show mercy, humanity and wit in seven words. But even more amazing is that he did it at all! There was nothing special about this young soldier and an awful lot that was bad. He was a drunk, a deserter, and a condemned man. He had nothing going for him…except for the mercy of the man in charge who was willing to free him from his past. You see, freedom from your past doesn’t come from resolutions or bargains or acting like it never happened. Freedom from your past requires pardon.
The disciples wouldn’t help them, so the ladies set out in the dark that first Easter morning, and walked to where Jesus was buried. They had watched Jesus suffer and die. They had watched his body get placed in the tomb. It wasn’t a dream. It was all too real. But when they got to the tomb, the guards were gone. The stone was rolled away. And when they went inside to investigate, an angel told them, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.’ The woman came looking for a man who, in their eyes, died a disappointment. But the angel pointed them to the place where a dead Jesus should’ve been, but wasn’t. And said seven words that changed their lives forever. ‘He is not here. He has risen.’
The women had come to the tomb with arms full of spices and hearts full of disappointment. They left with seven words of pardon and promise. As they ran to tell the disciples, they ran right into what the angels had told them. They ran into Jesus in the flesh, alive! They had come looking for a dead man, but what did they find? Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Jesus Christ is risen to free us. He came back from the dead in victory to set you free from your past. That’s what he promised, and that’s why he died. He died because there is nothing you and I can do with the sins that haunt us and the guilt that burdens us. There’s no way to undo it. The only answer was for it be pardoned. So, God’s Son took your place and took my sin. He went to the cross and paid for it all. He paid for all the sins that stir your conscience and scald your memory. He paid for them all and purchased your pardon. With his dying cry of ‘It is finished!’ he made a promise that came true when he rose from the dead. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Those seven words change everything for us. They free us from our past. Do you want proof? Look at what Jesus said to the ladies: ‘Go and tell my brothers.’ My brothers! That might not seem like much, until you realize that this is the first time Jesus ever calls them, ‘My brothers.’ Remember what they did? They deserted Jesus; turned their backs on him, ran away leaving him to die. And yet, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Go and tell those deserters.’ He didn’t even say, ‘Go and tell my servants.’ No, Jesus, the Son of God, said to those sinners like us, ‘Go and tell my brothers.’ Something changed. The past had been pardoned. Because Christ is risen to free us. The resurrection of Jesus means that God has taken all the sins of your past and all the guilt of your failures, and has buried them in the depths of the bottomless mercy of Jesus. So you now get to live in the freedom of forgiveness.
Michael Delaney walked out of his jail cell because he had been pardoned by a president. Can you imagine the sense of gratitude he felt toward President Lincoln? The President freed him, and he freed him for a purpose. ‘Let him fight instead of being shot.’ That’s exactly what Michael Delaney did. He rejoined his unit and reenlisted until the war was over. No more court martials, no more deserting. He fought for the man who saved him.
My friends, Jesus freed you for a purpose. He freed you to live, to fight for the man who saved you. What does that life look like? For those of you who haven’t been to church in a while, or who haven’t belonged to a church ever, this is important. The Church is not here to give you a bunch of rules. Christ didn’t come to give you rules. He came to set you free. To free you from living like this life is all there is. To free you from living like a rat on a wheel, chasing after trinkets that will not last. To free you from worrying about what your future holds. Jesus Christ is risen to free you from all that, because he’s got a purpose for you, a future all tied up in those seven words that change your life. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Without Jesus we would be forced to think that this life is everything. You live, you die, end of story. So, you better enjoy it now. If that were the case, then death destroys all your hopes and all your dreams. We would have nothing to do but rage against the dying of the light. But that’s not the end of the story. Before that first Easter morning, no one had made that impossible journey to die and then come back. But Jesus did. And so he could promise: ‘I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies.’
My brothers and sisters, we live in a new era that dawned on Easter morning. It’s an era where sin no longer convicts us. An era where Satan no longer controls us. An era where death no longer contains us. Jesus lives! That is the beating heart of all our hope, all because of seven words that change your life: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.