Sermon 04-01-18 (Easter): “Whom Are You Seeking?”

The theme of many Easter sermons is, in so many words, “Easter means heaven when you die.” While this is a great and important truth for those who are in Christ, “heaven when you die” is hardly the main message. The main message is this: Christ accomplished everything he set out to accomplish on Good Friday—and the resurrection proves it.

As I said yesterday, my preaching style has changed somewhat. I preached from an outline, not a manuscript—with much ad-libbing. So the following manuscript, which I wrote from memory after the fact, will be different, to some extent, from what I preached. 

Technical note: For the last five minutes of this sermon, I stepped away from the mic through which the recording was made, so the audio quality isn’t up to my usual standards. Still very audible, though!

Sermon Text: John 20:1-18

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Twenty-eight years ago, I had a philosophy professor at Georgia Tech who told us students, as he was passing out course evaluations, that he would often get feedback from students that indicated that he was “anti-Christian.” He said, “I’m always surprised by this because I couldn’t be more sympathetic with Christianity. I mean, I don’t believe in it in any literal sort of way. But for you Christians out there… Do any of you believe that Jesus was literally resurrected from the dead?”

This was a class of 35, 40 students. There were bound to be at least a handful of Christians. Yet no one raised their hand—including yours truly. So in a very small way, I can relate to Peter’s denial of Christ, except in my case, the stakes couldn’t be smaller: whereas Peter feared for his life, I feared a little embarrassment!

I don’t feel guilty about it. I’ve confessed that sin, and I know I’m forgiven. But if I had a time machine, I would go back in time to that class and do things differently. I have since learned that there is good historical evidence for believing that the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened—reasons that even modern historians should be able to accept. I’m not interested in going deeply into it here, but I do want to point out a couple of reasons from today’s scripture.

First, in today’s scripture, who was the first eyewitness to the resurrection? Mary Magdalene. In fact, all four gospels are in agreement that the first eyewitnesses are women—and all four accounts include Mary Magdalene in them.

This is a deeply inconvenient fact for the apostles and early church. Why? Because in the ancient world the testimony of women wasn’t admissible in a court of law. Women were considered unreliable witnesses. This became an issue, for instance, as early as the second century, when an early Roman opponent of Christianity, Celsus, argued that we can’t believe that the resurrection of Jesus happened because, after all, it was a tale told by “hysterical women”!

My point is, if you were making up a resurrection story, you wouldn’t have the first eyewitnesses be women. You would likely have them be the big three disciples: Peter, James, and John. Which means that the only reason that the gospel writers would include this inconvenient fact is because it also happened to be true. In fact, modern historians say that when an ancient writer includes information that hurts their cause (“the principle of embarrassment”) that counts as evidence of the report’s credibility.

Also, please notice that neither Mary, Peter, nor John—the “disciple whom Jesus loved”—went to the tomb that morning expecting Jesus to be resurrected. Right? They went because, as Mary said, someone had stolen the body. Even after seeing the empty tomb, none of them said, “This makes sense because Jesus predicted that he would be crucified and resurrected on the third day.” No—the truth is, when Jesus made these predictions, his disciples likely thought that he was speaking in parables. It was so far beyond their imagination that he would be resurrected.

Why? Because it went literally against their religion!

Many faithful Jews believed in the resurrection, but they believed in a resurrection that took place to everyone all at once at the end of history, not to one person in the middle of history! So what made them revise their deeply held religious convictions? The fact that they genuinely believed that Jesus had been resurrected!

So this is just a couple of small pieces of evidence from today’s scripture. There’s plenty more evidence like that. In fact, one philosopher at Oxford University, Richard Swinburne, has applied probability theory to this evidence and has put the probability that Jesus was resurrected at 97 percent!

While there are likely some people here who don’t believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected, and many more who struggle to believe, the truth is, if you surveyed this community of Hampton, Georgia, which is a mostly unchurched population in which fewer than 20 percent of residents go to church on Sunday—very small number for living in the “buckle of the Bible belt”—the truth is, the vast majority of them probably do believe in the bodily resurrection.

For the most part, we don’t struggle to believe in the resurrection, our struggle is to understand what the resurrection of Jesus Christ means! So that’s what this sermon is about: I want to talk about what today’s scripture reveals about the meaning of the resurrection—both theologically and biblically—and what it means for us practically.

So the first thing we learn about the meaning of the resurrection from today’s scripture—and I hope this isn’t too obvious—is what Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 calls the “final enemy,” death itself. Where do we see this? Look at verses 3 through 10. Notice the strange emphasis on what Peter and John saw when they peered and then walked into the empty tomb: They saw the linen cloths and the face cloth—folded up neatly. Why this detail? And what is it about this detail that causes John to believe in the resurrection?

First, John knows that the body of Jesus wasn’t stolen: Grave robbery, though a capital crime under Roman law, still happened: But when it did, no one took the time to remove these linen strips and face covering! That would have been a time-consuming, slimy, smelly mess!

But also, more importantly, John is thinking about what happened just over a week earlier, in John 11, which I preached on last week. Remember: Jesus raised Lazarus form the dead. Look at John 11:44: “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” Jesus asks bystanders to help him out of his grave clothes.

Symbolically, this illustrates that Lazarus is still bound by sin and death. Because he’s one of only a couple of people in history who have the “privilege” of dying twice. So John is contrasting the experience of Lazarus with what’s happening here: Jesus had no trouble getting out of his grave clothes. Why? Because he conquered death… through resurrection.

And listen to what Jesus’ victory over death means for us: As Paul writes in Romans 6:4-5,

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

I can’t help but think about my own father, who died of cancer 23 years ago. The last couple of months of his life, he was very frail, very sick. He was pale and emaciated. He was mostly bedridden. He had an IV bag and a catheter. He had a feeding tube by which we fed him. I’m grateful for those last two months, but it was difficult… to see someone so full of life yet whose body was failing. Shortly after Dad died, I had a series of dreams about him. And these dreams were so vivid. Dad was as real and lifelike to me as any of you sitting on the front pew there. And in these dreams, when I saw him, I always said the same thing: “Dad, what are you doing out of bed? You should get back in bed. Conserve your energy. Rest up.” Yet he was moving around just fine. His color looked good! He wasn’t nearly as thin. And where was his IV? Where was his catheter? Where was his feeding tube?

He looked well. He looked whole. And I think that God gave me the gift of these beautiful dreams to tell me two things: First, that Dad was O.K. And second, to show me a glimpse of Dad’s future: one in which he would receive a new body—the same kind of body that God gave Jesus—one incapable of suffering from diseases like cancer and other infirmities. For those of us in Christ, that is our future: First, when we die, we go to Paradise immediately—sometimes called the “intermediate state”; sometimes just called “heaven.” But this is a spiritual kind of existence. But after the Second Coming, we will be resurrected into a redeemed and renewed world—which we can hardly imagine. But that’s our ultimate future. “Heaven” is a two-step process.

And Easter means that Christ has made that possible for us! By all means, this is an important message. And many preachers would just stop there: “Easter means heaven when you die”—if you’re in Christ.

And that’s a great and true message, by all means! But I think I would be doing a disservice to you if I stopped there. Because, according to the Bible, this is not the most important meaning of Easter: the most important meaning of Easter is this:

Easter means that Christ accomplished everything he set out to accomplish on Good Friday!

Consider the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” The good news is that Christ has been resurrected, and a result, we have forgiveness of sins!

Where do we see this meaning in today’s scripture? Two places: Look at Mary’s interaction with the two angels in 12: “And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.” One at the head and one at the feet. Why this detail? Bible scholars and theologians tell us that this is a very deliberate detail, which points us back to… the Ark of the Covenant.

We all know about the Ark of the Covenant because we’ve all seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. We know, for instance, that if you remove the lid on the Ark and you’re a Nazi, God will strike you down dead—he will melt your face off, right? I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that this lid is highly significant. It was solid gold, and it was called the “Mercy Seat.” It had two angels on the Mercy Seat, one at each end. See Exodus 25:18 and Leviticus 16. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place on earth, where the presence of God dwelt in a special way, and he would sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull and goat on this lid—the Mercy Seat—in order to turn away God’s wrath and make atonement for his and the people’s sins.

We remember Hebrews 9:22: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

So it’s no accident that these two angels are standing at each end of the place where Jesus’ own sacrificed body had been laying. God was preparing Israel and the world for the coming of Christ. This Mercy Seat, with its two angels on each side, was giving us a glimpse of what Christ was going to accomplish—and what Mary Magdalene was going to experience—on Good Friday and Easter Sunday!

In case you still don’t believe me, listen to Paul’s words in Romans 3:25: God put Christ “forward as a propitiation” [NET: “mercy seat accessible by”; many other modern translations: “sacrifice of atonement”] “by his blood, to be received by faith.” Propitiation means a sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath and atones for sin. What Mary saw, in other words, proved that Christ had done everything necessary to save us from our sins!

Christ’s atoning sacrificial death on the cross fulfills what the high priest’s action could only point to in the future. The mercy seat in the Old Testament was a sign pointing to Christ!

Resurrection means forgiveness of sins! But not only that: See v. 17: “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The resurrection proves that Christ’s atoning death on the cross worked… We have forgiveness, new birth… We are clothed in Christ’s righteousness as a gift. We are part of God’s family.

Think of the Prodigal Son in the parable: He’s taken his share of his father’s inheritance and squandered it on wine, women, and song in a faraway country. He’s nearly starving… broke… friendless. He thinks, “If I returned home, well, even my father’s servants are able to eat three square meals. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll tell my father I’m not worthy to be his son, so I’ll work as one of his servants. That will be enough for me.”

But he isn’t even able to make it home before his father runs to meet him. Does his father beat him? Kill him? Is he angry with him? Does he have him arrested? No! He puts his finest robe on him! He puts his signet ring on him, as a symbol of the fact that this son is a full-fledged member of the family, with all the privileges that come with it! Far from being angry, the father is so happy he kills the fatted calf!

Brothers and sisters, friends, we are the Prodigal Son or Daughter! if we are in Christ, this is how God feels about each one of us! God loves us like this! And the resurrection of God’s Son Jesus proves it! Isn’t that the greatest news of all?

So what does the resurrection mean for us practically?

First, it means that if we are in Christ, we have an urgent mission, just like Mary Magdalene has an urgent mission in today’s scripture! “I have seen the Risen Lord! He’s now our God and our Father—because of what Christ accomplished on the cross! Isnt’ that amazing! How could I keep this good news to myself?”

Yesterday in my neighborhood the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses were out in full force. Every week for the past month, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been knocking on our doors—spreading their very distorted understanding of the gospel and leading astray anyone who was willing to listen to them.

On Facebook yesterday, I was feeling sarcastic. I posted: “The Jehovah’s Witnesses are out in full force again today—as they have been for the past month. Good thing we Christians don’t have to do evangelism—am I right? How embarrassing that must be!”

And some people misunderstood. One Episcopal priest friend of mine commented, “I don’t think going door-to-door is effective…” But he missed my point. I wasn’t arguing the merits of doing door-to-door evangelism. I know everyone says it isn’t effective. But you know what’s less effective than door-to-door evangelism? No evangelism at all! So if door-to-door isn’t effective, we need to figure out what is… and do that instead! Because all of us need to be on a mission, just like Mary Magdalene!

Finally, notice Jesus’ question to Mary in verse 15: “Whom are you seeking?” But get this: The person Mary was seeking was not the person she found. She wasn’t seeking this man in the garden who conquered death, sin, and Satan; who is the world’s Savior and rules the universe as king. No! She was seeking the corpse of a dearly departed friend! The Jesus she found was so much more than the Jesus she was looking for when she went to the tomb that morning!

And if you haven’t found Jesus yet—as your Savior and Lord—I promise he will be so much more than you’re looking for!

He is our greatest treasure! In fact, Jesus tells a couple of short parables about this in Matthew 13:44-46:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

The point is, if we understand the resurrection, Jesus ought to be our greatest treasure without even a close second!

Let me ask you the same question this morning: Whom or what are you seeking? Why are you here? Did you come seeking your life’s greatest treasure?

Some of you—I’m guessing—are here looking for a check box. “Attend church on Easter Sunday?” “Check!” Whew! What a relief! Won’t have to do that for eight more months! See you on Christmas Eve!

It’s as if you’re saying, “What’s the bare minimum I have to do to remain in good standing as a Christian?”

But if Jesus is our greatest treasure, there is no bare minimum! There is no check box! There is no sense of “duty.” As I’ve said before, being a Christian is like being in love!

It’s like that Foreigner song: [sings:] “I would climb any mountain/ Sail across the stormy sea/ If that’s what it takes me, baby/ To show how much you mean to me.”

And that’s exactly right! If Jesus is our greatest treasure—if we’re in love with Jesus—of course we’ll climb any mountain and sail across the stormy sea! There’s nothing we won’t do!

That’s what the resurrection means!

9 thoughts on “Sermon 04-01-18 (Easter): “Whom Are You Seeking?””

  1. I’m what is know as a “Tweener”. Born after “The Greatest Generation”, but before “The Baby Boomers”. I grew up here in Atlanta (suburban DeKalb County actually) and it was a childhood not unfamiliar to “Ozzie and Harriet” or even “Andy Griffith”. Everyone I knew was a Christian or Jewish, because there were churches all around us and a pretty good sized Orthodox Synagogue near us too. Kids were well behaved by today’s standards and we were pretty much free to come and go as we pleased. Folks looked out for one another, so it was nothing for us to ride our bikes a couple of miles to school, to friends houses, or to the movie theater.

    My how things have changed. No one would allow their kids that kind of freedom of movement today. And, I have come to realize that metro Atlanta has pretty much a “post Christian” population. My guess is that fewer than 5% of folks are in church or synagogue on the Sabbath nowadays. God is absent from the schools and from the courthouse. Not just absent, but decidedly not welcome.

    I’m at the end of my life and I am grateful that I lived when I did. I don’t think I would like the the world that my grandchildren will grow up in and will live in. The family is broken. It’s no accident that 6 of the last 7 school shooters grew up in fatherless homes. Maybe there will be a “great revival” of Christianity in America, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    1. What part of DeKalb? I grew up in Tucker. My church growing up was Briarcliff Baptist at Clairmont and Briarcliff, not far from Lakeside High.

  2. First 5 years were on a farm south of Decatur, then when I was 8 my dad was killed in the Korean War and we bought a home in Sagamore Hills, off Clairmont between Briarcliff and LaVista. I grew up in Oak Grove Methodist. Went to W.D. Thompson Elementary and Briarcliff High School, so we were not that far from one another. It was a wonderful time. I would ride my bike to school until I got a car. Rode it to Northeast Plaza and Stone Mountain with friends. We also hitch hiked, come to think of it. Can’t do any of that anymore either.

    1. Yes, I know most of those places. When I was a kid, Northeast Plaza had the largest record store (Turtle’s) I had ever seen at the time. Mom would go shopping for shoes (or whatever), and I would spend a lot of time there. “Farm south of Decatur”! Things have changed.

  3. Yep. It was my grandfather’s dairy farm. Candler Road at White’s Mill. 50 acres and ten cows. Sold his milk to Mathis. Sold his farm in 1950 for a subdivision and moved to Sagamore. That’s why my mother, his youngest, moved to Sagamore when my dad “bought the ranch”, as they called it back then.

    Amazing all the churches we had then, and they were all full on Sunday. Briarcliff Baptist, Clairmont Hills Baptist, Clairmont Pres., Oak Grove Methodist, to name a few that were within 3 or 4 miles of each other. And, stores were closed on Sundays. Imagine that.

  4. Hey Rev B how’s it hangin’? I’m a boomer, a near-end boomer, but still a 48-star-born ‘Merican. In the 60s, when I was growing up, drugs were just beginning their insinuation into upper-middle-class-dom. I managed to stay away from all that ‘getting high’ by whatever means were handy. Raised R. Catholic, so I am a “real” Protestant, having left the RCC just about 22 years ago. Mush of this I have told you already. But what I haven’t told you is that I have found a really good couple of free standing evangelical worship houses. My trek to sonship of the King has been an interesting (a virtually meaningless word) in that I had to find out what it meant to have a king first, then to be son of the King. You have been an important part of that journey (thus far incomplete) and I thank you. I hinted at a “thing” that has threatened to derail that journey and while I still cannot say what it is publicly yet (personal and confidential for a family member) I can say that I am closer to letting the over arching justice of our Savior wrest it from my grasp. He takes us as we are everyday and wants us to understand that He says “I got this too.”

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