As I say in this sermon, I have a passion for convincing people that the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened. But the more urgent need in our church, in our community, and in our culture is this: To convince people who say they believe the resurrection really happened to live as if they believe it really happened! Because if the resurrection happened, then that changes everything!
Sermon Text: John 20:1-18
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Yesterday I ran a race—a 5K—at my son Ian’s elementary school. It was a fundraiser for the school. Many people ran, including some very fast runners. I did not expect to win—not at all. But I also didn’t expect to get smoked by my son Townshend. The last time I ran a 5K with him, he beat me by a little—and I was still dealing with a heel injury at the time, so I could have chalked it up to that. Besides, the time before that when we ran a 5K, I beat him by a lot.
Yesterday, however, he beat me by a lot. And I thought I was in pretty good shape this time! So I had no excuses. I kept up with him for a little while, but… pretty soon he raced on ahead. So as much as it wounds my pride to say it, I think we have crossed the Rubicon; I will never again be as fast as Townshend.
Sad, isn’t it? No, not really. It shouldn’t be. He’s young! In his prime! Of course he beat me!
Today’s scripture describes something of a footrace, this one between Peter and John, called here the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the author of John’s gospel. And it sounds like their race ended in a similar sort of way. And I think that John beat Peter to Jesus’ tomb for the same reason that Townshend be me. Because we know that John is a lot younger than Peter.
But the main reason I want to draw your attention to these verses—verses 3 through 10—is I want you to notice how oddly detailed… and specific they are. Why does it matter who got to the tomb first, or what order they went in?
The reason these odd details are recorded here is because we are reading an account written by a person who was there—who participated, who took part in this action, who saw these things. He records these strange details for the same reason he told us, back in John chapter 1, that it was four o’clock in the afternoon when he met Jesus for the first time. You tend to remember very specific details about events that change your life—whether it’s meeting Jesus for the first time or realizing that Jesus was resurrected.
My point is, for anyone with an open mind, today’s scripture has the ring of authentic historical truth—not a legend that was invented by followers of Jesus after he died, either deliberately or because they experienced some mass hallucination. Because they wanted so badly to believe that he was going to be resurrected.
Are you kidding? Based on evidence presented in all four gospels, they didn’t want to believe that Jesus was resurrected. They weren’t expecting Jesus to be resurrected at all. Notice: when Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty, does she say, “Hooray! Jesus has been resurrected, just like he said he would be”? No. She runs back and offers the other disciples the most likely explanation—that Jesus’ tomb had been robbed and his body stolen. Grave robbery had become so common throughout the Roman Empire that Emperor Claudius made it a capital crime to break into a tomb.
If Mary so badly wanted to believe that Jesus was resurrected, her first thought would be to tell the others that he’d been resurrected—not that someone had stolen his body.
No… Mary and the other disciples were not gullible people. They were not easily persuaded that Jesus was resurrected. They knew that when people died, they stayed dead. Besides, while many Jews did believe in a resurrection—it was something that happened to everyone all at once, at the end of history. Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, no Jew ever believed it happened to one person in the middle of history. That was against their religion—and all of Jesus’ disciples were orthodox Jews. What would have caused them to completely revise their understanding their core religious beliefs? Nothing other than the fact that they were convinced that it really happened! Jesus was resurrected.
There were, after all, dozens of would-be messiahs a century before and a century after Jesus lived. Like Jesus, they were charismatic leaders. Like Jesus they had devoted followers who loved and believed in them. Like Jesus, they were killed by the Romans. Yet not one time did any of their followers claim that their messiah had been resurrected. Not once! It only happened after Jesus died.
I’ll never forget seeing best-selling author and atheist scientist Richard Dawkins being interviewed on TV one time, not long after he published his best-selling anti-God book called The God Delusion. The interviewer asked him how he explains the testimony and behavior of Jesus’ disciples after Jesus died if a resurrection didn’t occur. And he said, in his very smart-sounding English accent, “Oh, well… in the ancient world when charismatic leaders died, these sorts of legends about their being resurrected happened all the time!” I’m sure he’s a better biologist than historian because he’s completely wrong on history!
In fact, according to N.T. Wright, what normally happened when these would-be messiahs died is that their followers would find that leader’s next-of-kin—a younger brother, for instance—and anoint him the new messiah to carry on the movement. Well, Jesus’ next-of-kin was his brother James—the author of the Book of James in our New Testament. Jesus’ followers didn’t turn to James as their new leader. And far from trying to succeed Jesus, James bowed down and worshiped his brother as Lord and God! What accounts for that other than the fact that Jesus really was resurrected.
I could go on. There’s much historical evidence that the resurrection really happened, and I love talking about this stuff. Instead, I’ll leave you with one more interesting and hard-to-explain fact that corroborates the truth of what the gospels report. It’s this… In today’s scripture, the first person to find an empty tomb and report it to the disciples, and the first person to encounter the resurrected Lord, was a woman. In fact, we know from the other three gospels that there were other women with Mary Magdalene, even though John’s gospel focuses in on her. The point is, the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection were women.
If the disciples of Jesus wanted to invent a story about Jesus being resurrected, they would never use the eyewitness testimony of women. Why? Because in this very patriarchal, chauvinistic culture of the first century, a woman’s testimony was not considered trustworthy. In fact, it wasn’t even admissible in a court of law. So if you wanted people to believe you when you said that Jesus was resurrected, you wouldn’t tell the story like this… Modern historians call this the “principle of embarrassment.” Meaning… when you are judging the accuracy of an ancient document, if the author reports an event that is embarrassing to the author, that doesn’t advance the author’s cause, then the more likely it is that the event happened. So the only reason why John and the other apostles and evangelists told the story like this—with women as the heroes of the story—is because of the inconvenient fact that it also happened to be true!
Our world needs to know that it’s true—and that there are many good, rational reasons to believe it!
Last year in the New York Times, the retired 81-year-old talk-show host Larry King was interviewed. The interviewer talked to King’s wife Shawn, who told him that her husband is obsessed with dying. He talks about dying all the time—so much so, his wife said, that she finally had to tell Larry to knock it off because it was disturbing their children. The interviewer described how desperate King is to avoid death:
King takes four human growth hormone pills every day … [and he claims] he feels great. But in case of death, King … has arranged to have his body frozen and then thawed out when researchers discover a cure for whatever killed him—the so-called cryonics approach. King told me later that the people behind cryonics are ”all nuts,” but at least if he knows he will be frozen he will die with a shred of hope. ”Other people have no hope,” King said.
Other people have no hope… Speak for yourself, Larry. If the resurrection happened, we have hope! And it did happen. And I don’t believe in it mostly because these facts, and this evidence, and these arguments changed my mind; I believe in it mostly because I invited Jesus Christ to be my Savior and Lord, and he changed my heart! But the apostle Peter tells us to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” I would love to sit down with Larry King and give him the “reason for the hope that I have.”
So I have a passion for convincing people that the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened.
But you know what’s an even more urgent need in our day? To convince people who say they believe the resurrection really happened to live as if they believe it really happened!
Because if the resurrection really happened, guess what? It changes everything!
If the resurrection happened, then it proves that Jesus was right about everything that he said and did! Everything! So if you were on the fence about Jesus before, as soon as you find out he’s been resurrected, you get down off the fence! The resurrection proves that Jesus is entirely trustworthy, and he alone—more than all the great teachers, more than all the great religious leaders who’ve ever lived—Jesus alone has earned the right to be listened to—to be obeyed, to be followed, to be given our undying allegiance. And why not? The resurrection proves that Jesus is God himself, in the flesh, and the universe was created through him!
The resurrection also proves that God’s Word, the Bible, is true. How do we know that the Bible is true? Because Jesus believed the Bible was true. Sure, at one time you might have been perfectly justified in thinking that Jesus was wrong about the Bible, that it doesn’t have authority over your life and you can take it or leave it, you can trash it, you can trivialize it… but the moment you find out that Jesus has been resurrected, guess what? That option is off the table! You submit to the authority of the God’s Word because our Lord has given it to us, it’s very words guided by the Holy Spirit!
Resurrection changes everything!
Resurrection changes our relationship to suffering. Think of Mary walking to the tomb. John tells us that it was still dark outside. It was also dark in her soul. What do you think she was thinking? She just lost someone who healed her—who gave her back her life, who gave her life a purpose, who gave her a future, who gave her hope. This person meant everything to her, and now, through the greatest act of injustice in human history, he’s taken away from her. Within a couple of hours, though, think of how her grief will be transformed! Think about what she must have learned on that Easter: If God has the power to transform the greatest evil the world has ever known into the greatest good the world has ever known—the salvation of everyone who places their faith in his Son Jesus—then that means that he has the power to transform all the evil, all the suffering, all the trials that we face in our lives.
I can’t help but think of Joseph in Genesis. Remember the story? His brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt. And then, after years of suffering, years of setbacks, years of trials on his part, he eventually rises in the Pharaoh’s kingdom until he becomes chief administrator, the second most powerful man in Egypt. And he has the opportunity to confront his brothers after all these years, and he says something remarkable: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” God transforms evil into good. That message was brought home in a powerful way to Mary on this Easter morning.
I love the angels’ words to Mary when she summons the courage to go into the empty tomb. Mary sees the angels, and perhaps through her tears she’s unaware that they’re angels, but the angels ask: “Why are you weeping?” And when they ask this question, they’re probably scolding her a little. Why? Because from their perspective, Mary has absolutely no reason to weep. Did she not believe Jesus when he told her and the other disciples that he would be killed and on the third day he would be resurrected? Of course he’s not here! Of course the tomb is empty! Why is she crying? Why is she even bothering to come here at all? Didn’t she know that Jesus wouldn’t be here? What’s her problem? Didn’t she believe Jesus?”
I’m sure it’s hard for angels to understand. They don’t know what it’s like to be human. I mean, unlike us, these angels get to go in and out of heaven as they please. They’re much closer to God than we are! These angels have never been to funerals for their mothers or fathers, sons or daughters, or friends. They haven’t experienced death directly. They don’t know what that feels like. They can only watch us… and wonder.
They also don’t know what it’s like to sin. Not directly… They see us do it, but they’ve never done it. They don’t know how sin makes it so hard for us to listen to God, to trust him, to obey him. They don’t know, firsthand at least, how sin separates us from God.
And this brings us to the most important thing that resurrection changes: It changes our relationship with God—it reverses the devastating effects of sin in our lives. We see this in Jesus’ remarkable words to Mary in verse 17. He’s giving her an assignment: “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
What might Jesus have told Mary to say to these disciples—if he were like us? Considering how most of them abandoned Jesus in his hour of greatest need; considering how one of them—his closest disciple—even denied knowing Jesus; considering how none of his disciples believed him when he told them that he would be crucified and resurrected; considering how they’re all cowering in fear in the upper room behind a locked door. He might have said to Mary, “I want you to go to those no-good, lousy, sinful, lying, cowardly bunch of traitors who call themselves my disciples, and I want you to warn them that I’m giving them one more chance not to mess things up! One more chance and I’m through with them!”
That’s what he might have said… At least that’s what they deserved to hear. But no… Instead, he talks about the change in status that has happened as a result of his death and resurrection: “Go to my brothers,” he says. “Tell them I’m going see my Father and your Father.”
There’s no anger toward these disciples. No threats… No punishment… Only acceptance… only love… only grace. Do you see that? Christ now calls them his brothers for the first time. And if they’re his brothers then that means his Father is their Father. They are part of God’s family now! And it’s clear that these disciples did nothing to deserve any of this! It’s all grace.
So what changed between Thursday night and Sunday morning? Only… everything.
 1 Peter 3:15