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Easter Sunday (3)
For more than 1,400 years, a Cathedral dedicated to St Paul has stood at the highest point in the City of London. The cathedral is one of the most famous and most recognizable sights of this great city with so many historic sites.
St. Paul’s was designed by the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London destroyed an earlier cathedral that stood on the same site.
Before work could begin on the new cathedral, the remains of the old cathedral had to be cleared away. Once the site had been cleared and the necessary measurements taken, Wren asked a workman to bring a stone to mark the center of the new building. By pure chance, the workman handed Wren part of a gravestone from the old cathedral. On the stone was the inscription RESURGAM, which means, “I shall rise again.” (1)
Sir Christopher Wren was so moved that the words “I shall rise again” should appear on that stone strictly by chance, that he had the word RESURGAMengraved on the exterior of the new cathedral, where it can be seen today above the great south door.
“I shall rise again.” Jesus tried to tell his disciples that several times before his death on Calvary’s cross. You would think they would have been prepared on the first Easter morning to welcome him back from the grave. Clearly, they were not.
Forgotten, at least momentarily, was his promise that on the third day he would rise again. St. Paul would later write in his letter to the Corinthians that Christ has conquered the final enemy—the enemy of death, but it is clear such was not the expectation of his friends and disciples on that first Easter morning. Their hearts were heavy with grief.
I was reading recently about a member of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, William Seward. On Easter morning, 1865, William Seward lay in his bed, horribly wounded, shattered from having been in a horrible carriage accident. He had not been told of Abraham Lincoln’s death. Lincoln, you may remember had been shot on Good Friday, two days before and died the next day.
As he lay in his bed Seward asked to be able to see the trees just blooming. With the curtains drawn, he looked out and roved his eyes—and then he saw a flagstaff at the War Department, and a flag flying at half-mast. He stared at it for a moment and then murmured, “The President is dead!” He knew it because if Lincoln had been alive he would have been the first to personally call on him. He hadn’t been there and hadn’t even sent to inquire of Seward’s condition. That could mean only that he was dead. And there was the flag flying at half-mast!
Seward said no more, but great tears suddenly rushed from his eyes. (2)
The disciples of Jesus were stricken with the same kind of grief. They had forgotten Jesus’ promise that, on the third day, he would come back to them. All they knew was that their Lord was dead—and with him all their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. They were overwhelmed with their sense of loss. But that, of course, is not the end of the story. If it were, you and I would not be here today.
According to Luke’s account of the resurrection, a group of women made their way to the tomb early that Sunday morning to prepare Christ’s body with spices. There they found the stone rolled away from the grave and two men in dazzling apparel who said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise?” And they remembered Jesus’ words, and they returned to tell the eleven disciples and the rest of Jesus’ followers, “He is alive! He is alive! He has conquered death as he said.”
You may know the story of a gentleman who stood one day looking into a store window. Standing next to him and also looking in was a little boy. It was Easter time, and in keeping with the season the shopkeeper had arranged a setting of the crucifixion.
After a while the boy turned to the man. “Those are Roman soldiers,” he explained.
The man said nothing but kept studying the window.
“And there’s Jesus,” the boy continued.
Still no response.
“They killed him,” the boy said.
By this time the man, having satisfied his curiosity, started to walk away. Then he heard a patter of young feet behind him and felt a tug on his sleeve. It was the boy.
“Mister,” he said, “I forgot to tell you the most important part. He’s alive again!” (3)
That, of course, is the most important part. He is alive. Christ has defeated the final enemy—death.
But what does Easter mean in our lives—we who are Christ’s followers today? Doesn’t it mean, first of all, that we no longer have to fear death either?If Christ has overcome the grave, doesn’t that mean that death no longer has dominion over us as well? We are kind of strange in our attitude toward death, aren’t we?
Dr. Joe Harding tells about a funeral home in Florida that once advertised that they could guarantee to get you to heaven.
“They advertised a dramatic innovation in burial services. For about $4,000 they would cremate your body, put it into a small rocket, and fire it into orbit! It was guaranteed to circle the earth for 2,300 years!
“Isn’t that wonderful? Think about having your ashes in orbit for 2,300 years. Part of the pitch is that you are guaranteed to get up there. The problem, of course, is that heaven isn’t up there and that happiness isn’t up there at all.
“Perhaps, one of the selling points . . . would be that on a clear night people could come out, look up at the heavens and watch you go by. I am sure that someone will even put identifying blinking lights on the satellites so that people can say, `There goes George! There is Mary! There is Bill! They are all up there with their friends.’ Of course, it is ridiculous.”
It is ridiculous. Still, it is very difficult for most of us to face the thought of dying. In the cartoon, “Family Circus” the family is evidently returning from a funeral.
The mother says to the children in the back seat: “Well, yes . . . we’ll see Grandad someday when we go to heaven.”
With that the smallest child in the family says, “Could I just wait in the car?”
Out of the mouths of babes sometimes come words of wisdom. We were created for life, not death. No one who is healthy of mind, soul and body looks forward to dying. And of course, that is the point. We were created for life not death. God did not bring us into being for this world only. Christ showed us that death is no longer our enemy. Death has been conquered. Because Christ lives, we, too, shall live. We no longer need to fear death.
But Easter also says to us that we no longer need to fear life. Common sense says to us that there are things in life worse than dying.
In Greek mythology, Aurora, goddess of the dawn, fell in love with Tithonus, a mortal youth. Zeus offered her the gift of anything she wished for her mortal lover. Aurora chose immortality. He would live with her forever. But she forgot to ask that he would remain young forever. So he just grew older and older and could not die. The gift she prayed for became a curse. What use is life if we lose our dignity as human beings? There are things in this world more precious to us than our lives.
Archibald Rutledge once told how as a boy he was cured forever of caging wild things. Not content with hearing mockingbirds sing from cedars, he determined to cage a young one, and thus have a young musician all his own.
On the second day in the cage, however, the young bird’s mother flew to him with food in her bill. This attention pleased Rutledge for surely the mother knew how to feed her child better than he did. The following morning, however, his pathetic little captive was dead. When he recounted this experience to Arthur Wayne, the renowned ornithologist, Wayne said, “A mother mockingbird, finding her young in a cage, will sometimes take it poison berries. She thinks it better for one she loves to die rather than to live in captivity.”
There are many things in life worse than death. What does Easter have to say to us as we face life—life with its heartaches and disappointments, its hurts and frustrations?
It says, first of all, that God is involved in His world. The God of the empty tomb is also the God of the Exodus. The Deists were wrong. God is not off somewhere far removed from the human condition. The God of the Bible is intimately involved with His creation. The greatest heresy in the Christian faith today is the notion that Christianity is only about dying. For the Christian dying is a momentary inconvenience. But it does not interrupt a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that was begun long before.
The saddest Christian in the world is the one who believes that faith is simply buying a ticket to some far-off heaven. Such faith leads to a joy-less legalism. Christian faith is an ultimate love affair with life. That is why it is entirely appropriate that Easter should come during the springtime. That is why we celebrate this day with brightly colored eggs.
Traditionally this has been a day for wearing new brightly colored clothing as well. That is not a custom that grew out of our affluence, as you might suppose. Some of you might remember when the only new dress or new suit you got was at Easter time. That did not grow out of a desire to show off. Early Christians, who were not affluent at all, wanted to symbolize the fact that Easter was about new life, new hope, new joy so they attired themselves accordingly. God is involved in our world. Christ is alive in the hearts of those who love him. What joy that brings!
God is involved in the world. This leads us to a second thought. Easter is about victory. This is no day for doom and despair. Christ has defeated the final enemy. We share in that victory. Easter is the celebration of that victory. Easter belongs to the church. The world may have taken over Christmas, but Easter is still a uniquely Christian celebration.
For 2,000 years the church has proclaimed Christus Victus, Christ is Victor. In the Middle Ages the people would gather at twelve o’clock on Easter to celebrate a midnight mass. The beautiful words of the Gospel were read in the quaint churchyard. Then followed the joyous hymn, “Christ is Risen,” and the clamoring of bells. The priest, holding high a lighted candle, would bid all, “Come and receive light,” and would pass the flame to the multitude of candles held to receive it.
With these flickering torches in their hands, the throng turned eagerly to the House of God. The doors to the church were closed and locked. Loudly they knocked, their voices raised in solemn chant: “Lift the gates, O ye rulers of ours, and ye eternal gates be lifted, for there will enter Christ, the King of Glory!”
A voice from within demanded: “Who is the King of Glory?”
And the answer broke forth exultantly: “He is the Lord, strong and powerful! He is the Lord mighty in war!” (4)
Easter is a celebration of victory—for Christ is still victor today. Bishop Desmond Tutu, speaking at the Horace Bushnell Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut said, “It is Christ that will win for ever and ever. Amen.”
Easter tells us that God is involved in our world. Easter tells us that we can live a victorious life in Christ Jesus. But Easter also tells us that more than anything else people matter.
Why is it important to believe in the resurrection of the dead? Certainly, it is not so that we can believe in God. Creation provides more than enough proof of His existence. Many people believe in God who do not believe in Easter. God’s power and His omnipotence are not at stake. What is at stake is whether your life or mine has any ultimate significance. Do we live only for a season, then cease to exist forever? Or are we so significant in God’s eyes that even death cannot separate us from His love?
Do not say that Christianity can exist independently from Easter. Christianity is not simply a set of values, a moral code, a style of living, a grand philosophy. Christian faith is Easter faith. It is the conviction that people matter so much to God that he gave his own son in our behalf; that he allowed him to be crucified on the cross for our sins and on the third day raised him from the grave as sign and symbol that our lives are of eternal significance. God is involved. Christ is victorious. But even more importantly, we really do matter to God.
That is why we are gathered here this day. That is why the empty tomb is central to our faith. Bruce A. Demarest summed it up in a beautiful way in his book, Who Is Jesus? He writes, “Throughout the centuries men have tried to honor their heroes by erecting lavish monuments: the massive pyramids of Egypt, built as resting places for the Egyptian pharaohs; the glistening Taj Mahal, the tomb of an Indian emperor and his favorite wife; Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square, the place where the body of the Marxist leader is preserved by some mysterious process; the burial vault at Mt. Vernon, the site of President Washington’s interred body.
In its stark simplicity Jesus’ grave can’t compare with these costly crypts. But the tomb of Jesus excels in the most important respect. It lies empty! He is not there!” (5)
He is not there. He is alive. He is victorious, and because he lives, we, too, can live victorious lives as well.
1. Dr. William P. Barker, Tarbell’s Teacher’s Guide, Sept. 1999-Aug. 2000 (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook Church Ministries Curriculum, 1999).
2. James I. Fehl, ed., Standard Lessons Commentary 1982-83 (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co.).
3. W. Glyn Evans, ed., Christ Is Victor (Valley Forge: Judson Press).
4. A.C. Edgerton, More Speeches and Stories for Every Occasion (New York: Noble and Noble).
5. Bruce A. Demarest, Who Is Jesus? (Wheaton: Victor Books).
Easter Sunday (2)
Children: Usually when we think of Easter we think of brightly colored clothes–symbolizing the joy of the season. Or we think of Easter eggs symbolizing new life. Or maybe flowers which we plant in the ground as ugly bulbs and which emerge as a beautiful plants. Or even butterflies which were once creepy caterpillars before they entered a cocoon and were miraculously changed. All of these can be a symbol of Easter. So, how about popcorn?
I happen to like popcorn and it can remind us of Easter, too. For once it was a tiny, hard kernel of grain. How would you like to eat uncooked popcorn? Doesn’t sound too great, does it? But we put it in a popper. Now it is fluffy and white and delicious. I doubt that popcorn will ever be as big at Easter time as eggs, or flowers, or butterflies or new clothes. But it can remind us of the wonderful power of God to take anything and change it into something beautiful and useful. He can even what is dead and bring it to life as He did Jesus on that first Easter Sunday morning.
So, the next time you are at a movie munching on popcorn, let it remind you of God and His love and power. Then it can be Easter all over again.
You probably do not remember the name Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin. During his day he was as powerful a man as there was on earth. A Russian Communist leader he took part in the Bolshevik Revolution 1917, was editor of the Soviet newspaper Pravda (which by the way means truth), and was a full member of the Politburo. His works on economics and political science are still read today. There is a story told about a journey he took from Moscow to Kiev in 1930 to address a huge assembly on the subject of atheism. Addressing the crowd he aimed his heavy artillery at Christianity hurling insult, argument, and proof against it. An hour later he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be the smoldering ashes of men’s faith. “Are there any questions?” Bukharin demanded. Deafening silence filled the auditorium but then one man approached the platform and mounted the lectern standing near the communist leader. He surveyed the crowd first to the left then to the right. Finally he shouted the ancient greeting known well in the Russian Orthodox Church: “CHRIST IS RISEN!” En masse the crowd arose as one man and the response came crashing like the sound of thunder: “HE IS RISEN INDEED!”
Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was once asked if he believed in the resurrection. “Of course I do,” said Huckabee. “Dead people vote in every election we have in Arkansas. Resurrection is very real to us.”
Huckabee was being humorous. If we really believed in the resurrection, if we really believed that when we leave this world we shall stand before God clothed in a new body, if we really believed that Christ lives and that he is in the world today, would we not live more confident, more courageous, more committed lives?
Jesus Christ rose from the dead. That’s too much for some to accept. From the very beginning both dedicated disciples as well as cynical critics have struggled with the story of the resurrection. We can read that in the biblical testimony.
Some said his disciples stole his body. Remember that was Mary Magdalene’s response when she first saw the empty tomb. “She came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’” (John 20:2).
Matthew puts the blame on the chief priests for the popularity of this stolen body scenario. He says in chapter 28 that the chief priests gave the soldiers a large sum of money to say that his disciples came during the night and stole Christ’s body while they were asleep. Then Matthew adds, “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (v. 15). To some people, the stolen body scenario was credible.
Others contended he was not really dead when he was laid in the empty tomb he only swooned, or passed out, on the cross that he only seemed to be dead.
One lady wrote in to a question and answer forum. “Dear Sirs,” she wrote, “Our pastor said on Easter, that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think? (Signed) Sincerely, Bewildered.”
Someone on the forum named Charles wrote back: “Dear Bewildered, Beat your preacher with a cat-of-nine-tails with 39 heavy strokes, nail him to a cross; hang him in the sun for six hours; run a spear through his side . . . put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours and see what happens. Sincerely, Charles.” (3)
The resurrection is simply too good to be true in some people’s eyes. There must be some rational explanation anything but a resurrection. And yet it is true. Jesus Christ rose from the dead. He is alive today. How can I say that with such confidence? Let me give you three good reasons this Easter Day, 2019.
First of all, those who experienced his resurrection are such credible witnesses. Don’t take my word for it. Go back and read the record yourself. That’s what attorney and journalist Lee Strobel did. For a time, Strobel says he was too intellectual to accept the resurrection of Jesus as established fact. In his book God’s Outrageous Claims he writes: “I used to consider the Resurrection to be a laughable fairy tale. After all, Yale Law School had trained me to be coldly rational, and my years of sniffing for news at the Chicago Tribune had only toughened my naturally cynical personality. But intrigued by changes in my wife after she became a Christian, I spent nearly two years systematically using my journalistic and legal experience to study the evidence for the Resurrection and the credibility of Jesus’ claims to being God. I emerged totally convinced and gave my life to Christ . . .” (4)
I would challenge you, if you have any doubts at all about the historical record of the resurrection, to go back and read the story for yourself. The story does not read as something that was made up. It’s too chaotic. Notice the initial reaction of the disciples to the resurrection they did not believe it themselves. Mark tells us that when Mary Magdalene and the other women told the eleven disciples that they had seen the risen Lord, even “they did not believe it” (16:11). Luke is more blunt: “[The disciples] did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11).
Even after the risen Christ had made himself known to many witnesses, Thomas, one of Christ’s most sincere disciples, would not believe that it could be so. He had to see for himself (John 20:24-25). Even when Christ made his final appearance to his disciples on the mountain where Christ gave them the great commission, Matthew adds these incredible words, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; BUT SOME DOUBTED” (28:16-17). They were in Christ’s presence “but [still] some doubted.”
This is not propaganda. It is not a story fabricated to deceive. No one tried to iron out all of the wrinkles in order to convince us. This is the jumbled testimony of actual witnesses to the most amazing event in history. These witnesses to Christ’s resurrection recorded their testimony with all the doubts of their friends and the accusations of their enemies left intact. This is the first reason I believe in the resurrection: those who experienced his resurrection are such credible witnesses.
We have far more historical proof of the resurrection than we do thousands of pieces of information which we routinely accept as fact every single day. If we are going to take a stand on something, then why not the historic testimony of countless persons throughout the ages who have declared the validity of the resurrection.
What is most impressive, of course, is how the resurrection affected their lives. These disciples were absolutely transformed. They moved from doubting and fearful to dynamic and ferocious in their witness to the resurrection. Before Christ was crucified Simon Peter denied he even knew Christ and yet, a mere seven weeks later on the day of Pentecost Peter told the story of Christ’s death and resurrection with such conviction and power that three thousand people became believers (Acts 2:41). How do you explain such a change in a person’s demeanor? It’s incredible. Even more impressively, none of those who claimed to have met Christ after his resurrection ever recanted. They were persecuted, tortured, even martyred, and right to the very end they stayed true to their testimony. He is alive!
I believe the resurrection is genuine because it has stood the test of time. It was not something that was here today and gone tomorrow. As long as there is life on earth there will be people talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Father Basil Pennington, a Roman Catholic monk, tells of an encounter he once had with a teacher of Zen. Pennington was at a retreat. As part of the retreat, each person met privately with this Zen teacher. Pennington says that at his meeting the Zen teacher sat there before him smiling from ear to ear and rocking gleefully back and forth. Finally the teacher said: “I like Christianity. But I would not like Christianity without the resurrection. I want to see your resurrection!”
Pennington notes that, “With his directness, the teacher was saying what everyone else implicitly says to Christians: You are a Christian. You are risen with Christ. Show me (what this means for you in your life) and I will believe.” (5) That is how people know if the resurrection is true or not. Does it affect how we live?
The amazing thing is that every one of Jesus’ disciples passed this test. Their lives were dramatically turned upside down by their encounter with Christ. How would you ever make something like this up and stick to it when stones were piercing your flesh as did Stephen, the first Christian martyr? Or as you were being crucified upside down like Simon Peter? It is hard to dispute the testimony of someone who is so convinced of what they have experienced that they are willing to suffer and die to tell the story.
A day after the terrible tragedy at Columbine High twenty years ago, CNN journalist Larry King did a live interview with a teenage girl named Mickie Cain, a student who had witnessed the massacre. Mickie was having a difficult time maintaining her composure and was able to blurt out only a few words before lapsing into uncontrollable sobs. Larry King was patient and gave her plenty of time to regain her composure. Mickie recounted the chilling story: “Let me tell you about my friend Cassie,” she said. “[Cassie] was amazing . . . She completely stood up for God when the killers asked her if there was anyone [in the classroom] who had faith in Christ. She spoke up [and said she did] and they shot her for it.” (6)
Such a testimony as Cassie made that day makes our witness look pretty pathetic, doesn’t it? The critical question is, would you make such a sacrifice for something that you knew was patently untrue? Of course not. And neither would those early disciples of Christ. Don’t take my word for it. Read the record for yourself. These were not wild-eyed fanatics. They were intelligent men and women, responsible men and women, sensible men and women, but something dramatic had happened in their life, something so dramatic, so extraordinary that it could not be denied. They had met Christ risen from the grave and they would not testify otherwise even while being tortured.
The witnesses are so credible, the change in their lives so dramatic, that their testimony cannot be disregarded. However, I said there were three reasons that I can say with such confidence that Christ rose from the grave.
Here is the third: Without the resurrection, the presence of suffering in our world simply cannot be explained.
You and I have wrestled with this problem many times. How can a loving God place us in a world where there is so much suffering? In my heart I can only accept one real explanation. It is because the only way we grow spiritually is by struggling with pain. A person who never confronts pain and suffering will forever remain a spiritual infant. But to what end do we grow spiritually? It is so that we might become like Christ, that we might be fit to dwell with him eternally. The only way I can accept some of the deep tragedies I see in this world is to believe that this world is a preparatory school for a better world yet to come.
Consider the fact of aging. That which is physical gradually drops away. The flesh withers. Energy declines. The body is simply not capable of earlier feats.
You may recall years ago when fitness legend Jack LaLanne celebrated his seventieth birthday by towing 70 boats containing 70 people for a mile across Long Beach Harbor. Amazing! But wait. He did it by holding the rope in his teeth. Why? Well, he was handcuffed and wearing leg shackles! Unbelievable! At last report LaLanne was still going strong in his nineties. But friends, one day even Jack Lalanne’s body will give out on him and only one thing will remain, his spirit. This world is not our final destination. It is but a prelude to a grander production.
This world is a preparatory school. Without the resurrection, it is simply impossible to explain a world in which people suffer. But the resurrection is real. Christ is alive. Lee Strobel is only one among many intelligent and scientifically trained men and women who have studied the record carefully and come to the conclusion that the evidence is overwhelming: Christ rose from the dead. He is alive and he is available in our world today.
That’s Easter. The Risen Lord comes back to life… and assures the disciples that they are forgiven.
– Peter had denied his Lord three times.
– Thomas had doubted.
– All the disciples had forsaken Him.
But, Christ came back, forgave them, resurrected them. He came back to share with them… He comes today, this morning, to share with you the joy, the encouragement and the forgiveness of Easter.
Why do I believe in resurrection? I believe in it because somebody told me about it. I believe in it because it has stood the test of time. But supremely I believe in it because I have seen it in the life of others and I have experienced it myself. It is why I can stand here this morning and shout: CHRIST IS RISEN! (congregational response again: HE IS RISEN INDEED!)
The evidence is overwhelming, and life makes no sense without it. Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
- Nora Gallagher,Practicing Resurrection(Knopf Doubleday Publishing). Cited by Daniel Clendenin, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070402JJ.shtml#.
- Royce Hendry, http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon.asp?SermonID=34943.
- Cited by Dr. James L. Wilson, http://www.freshministry.org/alameda/10.htm.
- Marilyn Omernick, http://www.stjohnslaverne.org/SermonReadingArchive/OmernickEasterSundaySermon2006.rtf.
- Franklin Graham,The Name(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2002), pp. 14-15.
- Rosemary Kadrmas in Jeff Cavins, et.al,Amazing Grace for the Catholic Heart(West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, LLC, 2003), pp. 211-212.
Easter Sunday (1)
In his book, THERE I GO AGAIN, Steven Moseley tells about Anna Pavlova, a Russian ballet superstar of the early 1900s. Ms. Pavlova has been acclaimed as the greatest ballerina of all time. Her most memorable performance, however, took place after her death.
Anna was to play the role she made famous, the Dying Swan, at the Apollo Theatre in London. Tragically, she succumbed to pneumonia and died two days before the event.
Still, on the appointed night, a crowd of her fans packed the Apollo Theatre. The orchestra began playing, the curtain rose, a spotlight flashed through the dark, and the entire audience rose to its feet. They all stood gazing at a pool of light wandering around the stage, accompanied by the orchestral theme. As the light danced and the orchestra played, they remembered Anna Pavlova. In their hearts they could see her on stage, dressed in white with flashing dark eyes. And when the music stopped at last, they gave the vanished Anna a thunderous ovation that echoed on and on in the night. (1)
An empty stage with only a spotlight, but in their hearts she was alive.
For some, this is the experience of Easter. The Lord was crucified, he died as all of us will one day die, and he was laid in a borrowed tomb, but in the hearts of his disciples he lives forever. An empty stage, but not an empty tomb.
This is not the testimony of the New Testament. Yes, he was crucified. Yes, he did die. Yes, he was laid in a borrowed tomb, but when the women and later his disciples came to visit his tomb on the third day, the stone had been rolled away. The borrowed tomb was empty. The grave clothes that had been wound around his blood-stained body were neatly folded and laid to the side. He was not there! He was alive! He met with them, dined with them, reassured them ” not as a mere memory dancing in a spotlight, but as a real person. This is the Easter story. Not an empty stage, but an empty tomb.
Is this important? You bet it is. Ultimately, you and I have a choice to make. It is the most important choice we will ever face. It is whether to accept the empty stage or to accept the empty tomb. Does Christ merely live in the hearts of his disciples or is he really alive today just as you and I are alive?
Remember Woody Allen’s comic assessment? “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” he said. “I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”
Which is it? Are we immortal because there are those who remember and cherish the fact that once we walked this “vale of tears” or are we immortal because Christ has once and forever battered down the gates of death? Empty stage or empty tomb?
DEATH IS OFTEN AN UGLY EXPERIENCE. It means separation, loss, heartache beyond description. Oh, we try to pretend it is not so.
Has anyone here ever hear of Mrs. Martin Van Butchell? I would be surprised if anyone has. She’s been dead for over 200 years.
Mrs. Butchell left a will. It specified that on her death, her husband had control of her fortune only as long as her body remained above ground. I don’t know what she had against being buried, but that was her stipulation.
Mausoleums were little known at the time, so the husband hired the Scottish anatomist William Hunter to embalm his dead wife. Then he dressed her in fashionable attire and put her on display in the family parlor. Daily visiting hours were held for those who wished to view the corpse inside a glass-lidded coffin.
As news of how life-like Mrs. Butchell looked spread, the art of undertaking quickly became a thriving business. Families were encouraged to soften the loss of loved ones through embalming the person to look as life-like as possible. Some embalmers, to drum up new business, took their prize corpses on tour, exhibiting embalmed bodies in the windows of barbershops, in public halls, and at country fairs so that rural folk could get a glimpse of the latest in funeral treatment. And the public was duly impressed. (2)
We disguise death in many ways. Through our language, for example ” he passed away, she’s gone, mother’s no longer with us. We dress the deceased in his finest suit or her prettiest dress. We make use of the embalmer’s art. Sometimes we retreat into memories of better days. Anything to keep us from dealing with the finality of death. DEATH IS UGLY IF EASTER IS MERELY A SPOTLIGHT ON AN EMPTY STAGE. But if it is about an empty tomb, then death is an entirely different matter. Indeed, if Easter really is about an empty tomb, death can be seen in an entirely different light.
Many of you know of Tony Campolo. He is one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking speakers in America today. Many of you know about his love for his home church, Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, which happens to be a predominantly black church. Tony Campolo tells about the first funeral he attended at Mount Carmel when he was twenty years old.
Clarence, a college friend of his, had been killed in a subway-train accident. At the beginning of the service, says Tony Campolo, the pastor brilliantly expounded upon what the Bible says about the promise of the resurrection and the joys of being with Christ. Then he came down from the platform and went over to the right side of the sanctuary, where the family of Tony’s dead friend was seated in the first three rows. There, he spoke special words of comfort for them.
Then the pastor did a most unusual thing. He went over to the open casket and spoke as though to the corpse. He said, “Clarence! Clarence! There were a lot of things we should have said to you when you were alive that we never got around to saying to you. And I want to say them now.”
What followed was a beautiful litany of memories of things that Clarence had done for many people present and for the church. The list recalled how lovingly Clarence had served others without thought of reward. When he had finished, the pastor looked at Clarence’s body and said, “Well, Clarence, that’s it. I’ve got nothing else to say except this: Good night, Clarence. Good Night!” And with that he slammed down the lid of the casket as a stunned silence fell over the congregation.
Then a beautiful smile slowly lit up the pastor’s face and he shouted, “And I know that God is going to give Clarence a good morning!”
With that the choir rose to its feet and started singing, “On that great gettin’ up morning we shall rise, we shall rise!” As the choir sang, everyone in the congregation rose to their feet and started singing it with them. “On that great gettin’ up morning we shall rise, we shall rise!” There was clapping and crying, but the tears were tears of laughter. “Celebration had broken out in the face of death. Something of a party that is to come had broken into that church…Death had been swallowed up in victory.” (3)
No empty stage, but an empty tomb. That’s the message of Easter. Death has been conquered. AND SO HAS LIFE. Because of what happened that first Easter Sunday, you and I can walk in freedom and dignity and joy.
That prince of the pulpit Charles Hadley Spurgeon was walking the streets of London deep in thought when he saw a young street boy. The lad was carrying an old, bent bird cage. Inside was a tiny field sparrow. Spurgeon stopped the boy and asked him what he was going to do with the bird.
“Well…” the boy said. “I think I’ll play with it for a while, and then when I’m tired of playing with it ” I think I’ll kill it.” He made that last comment with a wicked grin.
Moved with compassion for the bird, Spurgeon asked, “How much would you sell me that bird for?”
“You don’t want this bird, mister,” the boy said with a chuckle. “It’s just a bleeding field sparrow.” But then he saw the old gentleman was serious.
“You can have this bird for ” two pounds,” he said slyly. Two pounds at that time would be worth more than a hundred dollars today ” an astronomical price for a bird worth only pennies. Spurgeon paid the price, and let the bird go.
The next morning, Easter Sunday morning, an empty bird cage sat on the pulpit of the great Metropolitan Tabernacle where Spurgeon preached.
“Let me tell you about this cage,” Spurgeon said as he began the sermon. Then he recounted the story about the little boy and how he had purchased the bird from him at a high cost.
“I tell you this story,” he said, “because that’s just what Jesus did for us. You see, an evil specter called Sin had us caged up and unable to escape. But then Jesus came up to Sin and said, `What are you going to do with those people in that cage?’
“`These people?’ Sin answered with a laugh. `I’m going to teach them to hate each other. Then I’ll play with them until I’m tired of them ” and then I’ll kill them.’
“`How much to buy them back?’ Jesus asked.
“With a sly grin, Sin said, `You don’t want these people, Jesus. They’ll only hate you and spit on you. They’ll even nail you to a cross. But if you do want to buy them, it’ll cost you all your tears and all your blood ” your very life!'”
Spurgeon concluded, “That, ladies and gentlemen, is just what Jesus did for us on the cross. He paid the ultimate, immeasurable price for all who would believe, that we might be free from the inescapable penalty of death.” (4)
That is the message of Easter. Death has been overcome, but so has life. You and I can be free, free as that bird delivered from its cage. We can walk in dignity and joy, with purpose and power. Christ is stronger than sin and the grave.
A young boy came home after Sunday school and was asked by his grandmother what he learned that day. He said, “`God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall have everlaughing life.'” And that’s the good news for the day ” we can have both everlasting and everlaughing life. We are free!
They had a contest on public radio, recently, seeking a new name for the Soviet Union. One entry suggested that in light of the disintegration of the country, the name should be changed from the U.S.S.R. to the U.S.S. Was.
That’s what Easter is all about. Pardon the grammar, but it is taking what we are and making that what we was. It is about giving us new life ” today and forever.
Anna Pavlova danced in the hearts of the people who loved her and admired her. The resurrection of Jesus was something more. He is alive. More than an empty stage ” his was an empty tomb.
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(Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991).
Charles Panati, PANATI’S BROWSER’S BOOK OF BEGINNINGS (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984).
Tony Campolo, THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS A PARTY (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1990).
Gary Smalley and John Trent, THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE (Pomona, CA: Focus on the Family Publishing, 1988).