We’ve all been “perplexed” at times. Where did I leave my keys? How can Route 22 ALWAYS have a traffic jam at Airport Road, no matter what time it is? What am I not getting about Pete Davidson’s attractiveness? To be perplexed is to be puzzled or confused. It generally has a combination of confusion and frustration, like when you’ve got five out six letters in the right order in Wordle but keep guessing the wrong thing. We get perplexed over all kinds of things. But discovering that the tomb of someone we loved is empty is not one of them.       

These women here at the tomb in the early dawn are easily the most faithful of all Jesus’ disciples. Granted, that’s not a super-high bar, given how the men who followed Jesus all abandoned him somewhere between his arrest and his death on the cross two days earlier. But even so, these women show extraordinary faithfulness to Jesus: they stood with him until he drew his last breath on the cross, watched as his body was taken down and laid in this tomb just before the Sabbath began on Friday evening, and now have returned as soon as it began to be light again to complete the burial rites for him.

As soon as they arrive at the tomb, though, it’s obvious something is up. The stone covering the door of the tomb has already been rolled away, and so, cautiously, they step in. There’s no body lain in its place in the tomb. They step closer to make sure it’s not a trick. Instinctively, they look around the tomb, then at each other. No, they were right: the body is gone; the tomb is empty. And Luke tells us that they were “perplexed” by this.

I’m sorry, but discovering that Jesus’ tomb is empty would not have “perplexed” them in the way that Wordle or Pete Davidson or even Route 22 does. There are things in this world that you feel like you can pretty much always count on, and bodies staying in tombs has to be close to the top of that list. Discovering that Jesus’ tomb is empty would not have been perplexing, it would have been shocking down to the very core of their being. And, as it turns out, the author of this Gospel would agree with that. Despite a long tradition of translating the Greek word here as “perplexed,” that’s not a good English translation.

What the word literally means is they were “at a loss for a way;” to have no way out, to not know which way to turn. That makes a lot more sense. To have endured what these women have endured over the past three days, to have come here in the early morning to at least put some closure on their duties to their crucified Lord, and to find that they cannot even do that because the tomb is empty would have been completely devastating: now they can’t even do that; what are they supposed to do now? What is the way forward? Is there a way forward??

And then, just as they begin to sink to their knees in despair, metaphorically and probably literally, there is a piercing blaze of light as “two men in dazzling clothes” appear. Understanding instantly that these are angelic beings, they are terrified and bow low to the ground in front of them. And the two beings ask them this extraordinary question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And then, in case that is not clear enough under the circumstances, they explain: “he is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, when he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite title for himself) must be handed over to the hands of sinners and be crucified and on the third day rise again.”

The problem, of course, is that these women aren’t looking for the living among the dead; they came looking for the dead among the dead. Jesus was dead, and they expected him to stay that way; they did not remember Jesus’ prophecies about himself until these visitors remind them of that, presumably because they didn’t really believe them. Why not? Well, for the same reason that we often don’t, if we’re honest in ourselves. Oh, it’s not that we don’t appreciate the sentiment, the beauty of the idea.

But it just seems so far from reality, an “idle tale,” as the male disciples call it when the women hurry back to them to tell them what they’ve seen and heard. An “idle tale” means, at best, a nice story with no real power or insight, if not total nonsense; it contrasts directly with “good news,” which is something with real power that demands a response. What we’re not recognizing in that moment, though, is that we’re making a powerful declaration of what we do believe, both what we believe in and what messengers we believe. 

In my family, my brother was the prophet whom nobody believed. One December Saturday morning, a few weeks before Christmas, when we were kids, he burst into my parents’ bedroom while they were still asleep. “The Christmas tree has fallen down!” he declared; “there are ornaments everywhere!” “No it didn’t,” my mom groaned as sleep pulled her strongly back into its arms, “that can’t be, sweetie.” “But it is!” he replied, affronted at this lack of faith on their part.

Finally, he was able to coax my mom downstairs and there, lying on the floor, was the shattered remains of the Christmas tree, along with my brother’s vindication. Our guess is that the cat climbed the tree and her weight towards the top pulled it over. And so his reputation was restored… until the next time. He was home sick from school in January 1986, drinking ginger ale and watching The Price is Right on TV the way everyone did on a sick day from school in the 80s, when suddenly the broadcast was interrupted for a breaking news story. He watched in confusion and dismay as the anchor announced that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded a little over a minute into its ascent.

“Mom!” he began shouting as well as he could for a sick kid; “Mom, the space shuttle just blew up!” “What?” my mom called back distractedly from the kitchen. “The space shuttle blew up!” he said again; “it’s on the news!” “Oh, I’m sure you just misunderstood, honey,” she replied. “Mom! Remember the Christmas tree? Come see this!” he roared indignantly. And so she came and saw that the unbelievable thing he was saying was happening.

My mom, like most parents at some point (including myself), discounted what her child was saying both because it was somewhere between improbable to unthinkable, and because parents often assume we understand things better than our kids simply because of our status as parents, and we’re often wrong about that. In a similar way, the male disciples who abandoned Jesus when things got tough have the audacity to dismiss the news from the faithful women as an “idle tale” both because it’s somewhere between improbable to unthinkable, and because they assumed they understood things better because they were men. More than two thousand years later, we’re still struggling with that one.

 “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angels ask the women, who thought they were looking for the dead, not the living. Once they realize what the angels are telling them, they come back to the male disciples to give them the news, and they dismiss it as an idle tale. They do so because they don’t believe the women are reliable narrators, and because they don’t believe the news that they’re bringing, but also because they believe more in the story that they assume is true. After all their time with Jesus, they still believe that death is more powerful than God, that fear is more powerful than love, that self-interest is more powerful than justice or mercy, that violence is more powerful than true peace. And that’s understandable, because it is all too easy for us to make the same mistake when we’re doomscrolling through the news on our phones every day.

Which is why it’s so important for us to listen to this news, to the good news that the women are bringing about the empty tomb. Because in doing so, we again realize that our choice is a question of whom and what we truly believe, what we are at least willing to consider and explore. Do we believe that the way this world is cannot and will not be changed? Do we believe that death gets the last word rather than God? 

Or do we believe the good news that the women bring back from the tomb, which is good news precisely because of how unexpected and out of the ordinary it is? Nobody bursts into a room and says, “hey, everybody I have good news! Everything is exactly the way it always has been, everything is going exactly the way we expect it to, and everything will stay exactly the same.” That’s not news. And it’s also not good, even for those who are currently benefiting the most from the way the world is, though they generally don’t understand that.

The good news of the empty tomb, that Jesus is not among the dead but has risen, calls into question everything we think we know about the way this world is and how it will or must be. The point of the empty tomb is not simply that Jesus is not among the dead; the point is there’s no telling from that tomb where he is or what he’s up to. And the only way to know that is to believe the good news. But not the way that we usually talk about believing. Too often we hear “believing” in Jesus as an intellectual exercise, assenting or disagreeing with a series of statements about him. That’s the equivalent of just standing there in front of the empty tomb and thinking the story is over. But that, then, really is just an idle tale that doesn’t make any difference for anybody.

The way to really find out what Jesus is up to, the way to truly believe, is to go looking for him among the living, to see what he’s doing, and to join him in doing it. Because it’s not like it hard to figure out the places he’s most likely to show up. For the early disciples, that was Galilee, where he had specifically promised to meet them after he was risen. But it’s no less easy for us to figure out where he will be today through the Spirit: he was pretty specific about that, too.

Wherever those who are hungry need feeding, and those who are poor need serving; wherever those who are lonely need visiting and those who are sick need healing; wherever those who are oppressed or persecuted need helping, and wherever those who are marginalized or excluded need welcoming; that is where Jesus Christ will be most likely to be found among the living, because that is where Jesus Christ has always been most likely to be found.

You see, we don’t believe in the good news of Easter by agreeing with it; we believe it by living into it and living it out in love and service. And when we do, we start seeing Jesus everywhere we look, right where he always promised he would be, doing what he always promised he would: coming so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Because he is risen; he is risen indeed.