I suppose most of us have heard the little ditty about "Habit" -
But that doesn't mean that all habit is bad. It is in fact desirable to develop good habits. Whether it is listening, speaking, writing, working, or whether it is driving, caring for a baby, doing the housekeeping, working at a job... what we do is a mixture of conscious application and habit.
Tradition is another word that is greatly despised today. It is seen to represent bondage to the old and an unwillingness to change. That can be bad - but not necessarily so. Tradition is the set of habits of a particular group of people passed on from one generation to another. Last year when our Prime Minister touched the Queen on the back, the British papers were in an uproar. Royal protocol had been breached. The Queen herself didn't seem very distressed, incidentally. However, questions were being asked - in Australia and elsewhere - why the protocol had arisen in the first place, whether it was still appropriate, whether the Prime Minister had acted deliberately or in ignorance...
In most cultures the habits and traditions associated with death and mourning try to help the relatives and friends of the deceased to come to terms with the bereavement. These habits and traditions will reflect the beliefs of those people about this life and the life to come. They will provide a familiar routine for a period disrupted by grief.
At the request of the chief priests and the Pharisees, the tomb of Jesus was sealed and a guard placed - "so that his disciples will not be able to steal the body, and then tell the people that he was raised from death" (Mt.27.64). The tomb was sealed by means of a cord or string passed around the stone covering the opening and fastened to the rock at both ends with sealing-clay.
The guards knew what was expected of them. The seal was legal evidence that the tomb had not been tampered with by anyone. They was there to ensure that nobody removed the body. They were Roman soldiers and independent of both the disciples and the Jewish leaders - and quite open to be suspicious of either group.
The words of Pilate may suggest a question in the governor's mind - "Go and make the tomb as secure as you can." Whatever you may be trying to stop may not be as easy as you think.
From the guards' point of view, this was no unusual assignment. They had their routine which kept them both awake and alert. Nothing suspicious would escape their attention.
The routine was fine, but what happened was out-of-the-ordinary! The earth shook with the force of a violent earthquake. Then they see this dazzling angelic creature come down out of the sky, roll the stone away and sit on it. None of their training prepared them for this! They were scared stiff and froze where they were - "they trembled and became as dead men."
They heard an angelic message, "He is not here; he has been raised, just as he said." They had done everything required of them. Their procedures had been letter-perfect. The breaking of the seal on the tomb only occurred at this point and revealed that the body had already gone!
When the initial shock passed, some of them stayed on duty while others hurried into the city with the news. But where should they go? If they went to the Roman superiors, there could be bad trouble. Would their story be believed? Their lives could be at stake! So they went instead to the Jewish authorities and reported the extraordinary happenings of the night. (How we would love to see and hear the reaction of Annas and Caiaphas!) So the chief priests framed their plan. Thankfully, these men have come to us first! At all costs, we must stop their news right here!
So the men were given a large sum of money to say that the disciples of Jesus had stolen the body during the night while they were asleep. Sleeping on duty was punishable by death, but "we will convince the Governor that you are innocent"! Setting off with the money, they did as they were told to do.
The Sabbath finished, of course, on Saturday evening, but it was early Sunday morning that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary returned to the tomb. Mark and Luke both record that their reason was to complete the embalming.
Just as the tomb and the guards came into view, earthquake shook the ground and they saw the angel of the Lord come down, roll the stone away and sit on it. The angel spoke to them, "You must not be afraid! (How they needed that word!) I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has been raised, just as he said. Come here and see the place where he was lying. Go quickly now, and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from death, and now he is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him!' Remember what I have told you."
Yes, the body was already gone from the tomb before the earthquake! So they hurried off - with a mixture of fear and joy to tell the news to the disciples! On the way, Jesus himself met them and confirmed the message they were to give to the disciples.
The guards and the women were just doing their duty - following the routines set down for them by generations of custom and practice. But in the course of doing their duty, an event unexpected and extraordinary had cut across it all. The procedures they had been following might otherwise have been totally relevant and appropriate. But suddenly the guards found that they were guarding an empty tomb, and the women found that their embalming spices were unnecessary!
Jesus is not dead - he has been raised!
What have you been doing this past week in the course of your duty? Where does duty call you this coming week?
Here and now, in the course of your duty, let this extraordinary fact sink into your awareness - Jesus is not dead! Jesus is alive!
There are many things you were planning to do that you will still need to do, but not one of them should be unaffected by this amazing fact that Jesus is not dead but alive! He has the right over your life! His death was not simply a plot of human hatred, but a gift for our salvation by divine love!
Jesus is alive! In the midst of your duty, acknowledge that he is here, your Saviour and your Lord! Welcome him! Trust him! Love him! Obey him!