Easter Sermon 2015: “He Has Risen—He Is Not Here”

April 16, 2015

easter_sunday_2015

My Easter sermon for 2015 is one part apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and one part proclamation of what that resurrection means: forgiveness and reconciliation with God, eternal life, and God’s putting the world to rights (as N.T. Wright often says). This is the first time I’ve preached Mark’s version of the resurrection in nine or ten years—although I would hate to re-read my sermon from back then!

Sermon Text: Mark 16:1-8

[To listen on the go, download an MP3 of this sermon by right-clicking here.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

When I was a child, to my great shame and embarrassment, I was a crier. For whatever reason, when I was a kid, I cried easily and often. This fact embarrassed me greatly. I know I know There’s nothing wrong with crying, but I was mortified at the thought of crying in front of my classmates in elementary school. The prospect filled me with dread. Yet somehow it still happened, year after year. Year after year, from first grade through sixth grade, something would happen—I’d get in a fight, I’d get in trouble, teachers would yell at me—and tears would flow. I would cry at school, and I felt like the whole world saw me.

Here’s the worst incident: It was literally the last day of sixth grade. I had gone the entire year without crying even once. A new record. And back in those days no one did any work on the last day of school. We spent most of the day in class parties or on the playground. What could go wrong? It was such a happy day. What could happen that would cause me to cry? Well, we were on the playground. By one of the jungle gyms. And I said or did something to cross Doug Smith—the class bully, my nemesis, my enemy—and he punched me in the gut. Cold-cocked me. Knocked the wind out of me. And I promise you, it was as if my skin turned green; it was as if muscles grew and ripped through my shirt and pants. It was as if I transformed into the Incredible Hulk.

And I let Doug have it. He felt my fury. At least that’s how I remember it. If Doug happens to find this sermon online, I apologize if he remembers things differently. But one thing I know for sure. When we were done, my friend Carlton and a couple of others were patting me on the back. I had done it! I had defeated Doug Smith!

So I should have been happy, right? I should have been overjoyed! But as Carlton was patting me on the back, it happened once again: I started crying! And Carlton’s like, “What’s wrong? Why are you upset? Don’t you know you won?

And the truth is, similar words might be spoken of these women who were leaving the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning, having received the news that their teacher, their Lord, had been resurrected: “What’s wrong? Why are you upset? Don’t you know that Christ won—that Christ won a victory over sin, evil, and death, so that your sins, my sins, will no longer be held against us but we’ll have forgiveness, future resurrection, and eternal life?”

But the women clearly didn’t understand what happened. They clearly didn’t understand the significance of the empty tomb. They couldn’t comprehend it. Couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t believe it. No one did—or almost no one. Only one person in the four gospels comes to believe that Jesus had been resurrected on the basis of the empty tomb alone. Jesus had told them about his death and resurrection on at least a few occasions—and they must have thought he was talking in riddles or parables. Or they must have thought he was talking about the widely-held Jewish belief that resurrection would happen to Jesus at the end of history-as-we-know it, when all of the righteous dead would be bodily resurrected. Since Jesus was the most righteous of all, they surely had no trouble believing that that would happen to him. But again, that was something that would happen in the distant future.

But to believe that one individual—in the middle of history—would be resurrected? This was beyond belief. Unimaginable.

I once saw an interview with best-selling atheist author Richard Dawkins, who was asked to explain why the early Christians believed so strongly that their messiah had indeed been resurrected. I’m convinced that everyone sounds smarter with an English accent, and he said, in his smart-sounding accent, “Well, when charismatic leaders died in ancient times, their followers often believed all kinds of stories about them coming back to life.” Whereas I’m sure Dawkins is very smart when it comes to biology, he has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to ancient history.

What he needs to account for is this: within a hundred years on either side of Jesus’ life, there were literally dozens of would-be messiahs, charismatic Jewish leaders who, like Jesus, had faithful disciples, leaders who led revolutionary movements against the Roman Empire, and leaders who, like Jesus, were crucified or killed by the Romans. And yet, not one of the disciples of any of these would-be messiahs ever claimed that their leader had been resurrected. Not a hint of it. And that’s for one simple reason: when your messiah gets killed by the Romans, then that means that you need to find a new messiah. Messiahs weren’t supposed to get killed!

Besides, Dawkins was obviously a victim of what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery”: Dawkins assumes that ancient people were just really gullible, really naive—that they were susceptible to fall for any incredible or miraculous claims that came along. Oh please! Ancient people didn’t know as much about the human body as we know today, but one thing they did know: they knew that when people died, guess what? They stayed dead. This is why the women went to the tomb on Easter morning in the first place: they went with spices and fragrant oil and perfume to finish the job of preparing Jesus’ body for burial.

Let me explain that for a moment. In first-century Judaism, burial was a two step process: The first step was to put the body in the tomb. You’d wait a year or so for the body to decompose completely. After which you’d reenter the tomb, collect the bones that remain, and put them in a box for safe-keeping—until resurrection happened in the future. Tombs were made to go in and out of. The stones in front of the tombs were heavy, but they were made to roll—so you could go back in and retrieve the bones, or to go in and bury another member of the family, since these were family tombs. And it was important to wrap the body in spices and perfumes—why? For a simple, if unpleasant, reason: to minimize the stink, the foul odor of decay in the tomb.

My point is, this is why the women went to the tomb in the first place. Notice when they saw that the stone had been rolled away and the body was missing, they didn’t say, “Jesus is risen, just as he said he would be!” No. They were greatly alarmed! John’s gospel reports that Mary Magdalene believed that the gardener had done something with Jesus’ body.

They didn’t expect Jesus to be resurrected—because they weren’t gullible. They weren’t naive. Because they knew that when people died they stayed dead. Because they knew that faithful Jews wouldn’t be resurrected until everyone else had been resurrected—and that wouldn’t happen until the end of time.

But maybe you’re still skeptical. Maybe you think, “What if the early Christians just invented the idea that Jesus had been resurrected?” One of many problems with this idea is that women were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection. Why is that a problem? Because this was a very sexist, very male-chauvinistic age. Back then, the eyewitness testimony of women was not considered credible. Celsus, a second-century Roman writer, who believed in all the Roman gods and opposed the Christian movement, marshaled as primary evidence against Christianity the fact that women were the first eyewitnesses. He said that women’s testimony can’t be trusted because, after all, women are, quote, “hysterical.”

And the view of women among first-century Jews wasn’t much more enlightened. First-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus said, “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of the sex.”

All that to say, if these early Christians were inventing the story of the resurrection of Jesus, they wouldn’t have had these women show up at the tomb on Easter morning and find it empty. They would have had Peter, James, or John or one of the other male disciples. It doesn’t help them make the case for the resurrection by including a story of female eyewitnesses. They would have known that. Which means the only reason you would report that women were the first eyewitnesses is because of the somewhat inconvenient fact that, well, it also happened to be true.

As I shared in my recent class on evidence for the resurrection, the vast majority of secular historians today accept as true several basic historical facts regarding the events of Easter: Among them, that these women really discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty. So, if it’s an historical fact that what Mark reports really happened, then it causes us to wonder: where were all the male disciples? Why didn’t they say, “Hey guys… Remember when Jesus said he’d be resurrected on the third day? Let’s go check it out and see if it happened today!” No, they didn’t do that because, like the women, they knew Jesus was dead. Because when people died they stayed dead.

Something happened to make them not only change their minds, but radically change their religious beliefs and accept the fact that—contrary to what they’d been taught all their lives as pious Jews—one man had been resurrected in the middle of history. Something happened to cause them to turn the world upside down with the gospel, to suffer and even surrender their lives for the sake of that belief! And that something was the fact that not only did they find an empty tomb, but they also had a direct, physical encounter with the resurrected Lord—they could touch him, feel him; they saw him eat and drink. He was real—not a hallucination, not a vision, not a dream.

All that to say: the resurrection really happened… Now, the next question we have to deal with is, What does it mean?

First, for those of us who believe in Jesus, it means our sins really are forgiven. We get a clue about this in verse 7, when the angel says to the women, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

Notice what the angel doesn’t say: he doesn’t say, “You go tell those faithless, back-stabbing cowards that Jesus might decide to see them again, might have mercy on them and forgive them, if they grovelif they get down on their knees and beg hard enough.”[1] The angel would have been perfectly justified in saying that. Consider how badly, after all, these disciples failed Jesus. They all fled, they all ran away, they all betrayed Jesus to some extent, they all blasphemed the Son of God. Especially Peter! That’s why the angel makes a special point of mentioning Peter by name! Because he really wants Peter to know that the Lord still wants him, in spite of the fact that Peter, when he feared for his life, denied even knowing Jesus. If anyone had proven that they were unworthy of Jesus’ forgiveness, it was Peter—and yet today’s scripture tells us that even he is welcome to come back in the fold.

The resurrection is all about forgiveness.

But wait a minute, you might say. I thought the cross—Good Friday—was all about forgiveness. Well, it is… But the resurrection proves that Jesus really accomplished the forgiveness and reconciliation with God that he sought to purchase through the cross. Think about it: “After a criminal does his time in jail and fully satisfies his sentence, the law has no more claim on him and he walks out free. Jesus Christ came to pay the penalty for our sins. That was an infinite sentence.”[2] But we know Jesus must have satisfied it fully, because on Easter Sunday, Jesus walked out of that prison of death and hell a completely free man. Death and hell no longer had any claim on him. As one pastor said, “The resurrection was God’s way of stamping PAID IN FULL right across history, so that no one could miss it.”[3]

Obviously, if Jesus could forgive a sinner like Peter, surely you can’t doubt that Jesus can forgive a sinner like you—or me?

I went to a funeral yesterday, and the pastor did a great job—his sermon was spot-on. The only problem, in my opinion, was the gospel song that a group sang after the pastor delivered this powerful resurrection message. The song included these words: “This world is not my home/ I’m just passing through/ My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” This world is not my home? Really? That’s not the meaning of resurrection at all. The meaning of resurrection is, in fact, that this world is our home—not the world as it is at this moment, but a redeemed, renewed, restored world—a transformed world in which death, sickness, suffering, and sin will be thing of the past. We’ll have new “glorified” bodies—which, according to the apostle Paul will be a lot like Christ’s resurrected body.

Resurrection is everything that you know in your heart of hearts this world ought to be, but can never seem to be—at least not for very long.

Like many of you, I did some Easter shopping last week. I bought a couple of dress shirts, a couple of ties, and for the first time in my life, I bought a shirt that required cuff links—only I didn’t realize it until I got home on Friday afternoon—intending to wear the shirt for the Good Friday service—and I thought, uh-oh. I didn’t know it required cuff links. I don’t think I own cuff links. But then I remembered something: twenty years ago, Mom gave me Dad’s old jewelry box—I don’t know what you call it? A manly jewelry box. And I thought… maybe there were cuff links in there. I pulled it down from the closet. Eureka! Cuff links!

When I pulled these things out, my mind was flooded with bittersweet memories of my father. My dad was a Shriner—in fact he was the head Shriner in Georgia, the “Grand Poobah,” the Potentate, they called him. And throughout my childhood he and Mom spent so much time leaving us kids with baby-sitters on Friday or Saturday nights because they had to go to some formal ball or party or charity event—which required them to dress to the nines. They had to really dress up! And I would watch them get dressed up and watch Dad put on his cuff links—those same cuff links I wore last Friday. So I was thinking of all this.

Not only that… As I was putting on Dad’s cuff links, I remembered the way his cologne smelled! After he got dressed, and he and Mom were about to walk out of the house, he would cup his hands around my cheeks and kiss me on the forehead—and I had that strong smell of his cologne on my face from where he put his hands! That’s a happy but poignant and bittersweet memory. Because obviously I wish he was still here!

I’m glad I had that memory, because too often I can only remember him as that very frail, cancer-stricken man I knew during the last few months of his life—with the catheter bag and feeding tube and walker.

But the smell of Dad’s cologne—along with happy memories of my parents going out dancing, and listening to live music, and laughing and having fun with their closest friends, and enjoying conversation… aren’t these just ordinary events that make up an ordinary life? Nothing too special, right? Wrong… these ordinary events are actually very special!

As pastor Tim Keller said, “There’s nothing better than ordinary life, except it’s always going away and always falling apart.” And, I would add, it’s always too short… too fleeting… too temporary. Keller said, “Ordinary life is food and work and chairs by the fire and hugs and dancing and mountains—[ordinary life is] this world. God loves [this world] so much that he gave his only Son so we—and the rest of this ordinary world—could be redeemed and made perfect. And that’s what is in store for us”[4] when we, like Jesus, are resurrected.

[Invitation: everyone here can have the assurance of future resurrection…]

[1] Paraphrase of Timothy Keller, Jesus the King (New York: Riverhead, 2011), 237.

[2] Ibid., 239.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 245.

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