Faces and Places Around The Cross: The Empty Tomb
I wish to read these words written by John, but they are the Word of God.
“So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter who was behind him arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.”
Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Give me Jesus Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Easter, I think, is a lot like Christmas. It is not a time for learned discourses or complex theology. Rather, it is a time to tell a story, a story so simple, so beautiful, so simply beautiful that it is as powerful and fresh today as it was when Jesus’ best friend John wrote it nearly 2000 years ago.
It is the story I never tire of telling. And so today on this, my 47th Easter in the pulpit, I tell you the story once more. It was the custom in first century Jerusalem for the wealthy citizens of the city to have private gardens located outside the walls of the city, gardens to which they could repair in order to escape the dust and the noise, the hustle and the bustle of the city. Gardens which were adorned with brightly colored flowers and where on occasion these well-to-do citizens would actually bury members of their families. And so the gardens did double duty, a private retreat and a family cemetery.
Joseph of Arimathea was one of those wealthy citizens, and he owned such a garden outside the city of Jerusalem. And because of his kindness and generosity, it was in his garden where Jesus was buried after He was crucified. Interesting, don’t you think that Jesus earthly life began in a borrowed womb and ended in a borrowed tomb. It was April on a Sunday morning early. In fact, John says while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene left the city and headed out to Joseph’s garden. It was her intent to try to improve upon the rather hasty burial that Jesus had received late Friday afternoon after the crucifixion. She had no opportunity to go before then because it would have been a violation of the Jewish law to do anything like that on the Sabbath. The Sabbath began sundown Friday, ended sundown Saturday. And so Sunday morning was the first opportunity that she had to visit the tomb. And when she arrived there, she was startled to see that the massive stone used to seal the tomb had been rolled away. Immediately, in a mixture of alarm and despair, she cried out, “They have taken away my Lord.” And then without bothering to stop for further investigation, the Bible says that Mary ran back into the City of Jerusalem in order to tell the disciples what had happened. Peter and John, thunderstruck by this terrible news, immediately dashed out to the garden themselves. I’ve always loved noting that that first Easter day unfolded in double time. There was a lot of running that Easter morning.
John, perhaps because he was younger, ran faster, and he arrived at the tomb first. He didn’t go in. He hesitated perhaps to try to absorb what he was seeing. But Peter, oh, no, not old impatient, impetuous, impulsive Peter. No. He came barging right into the scene and stormed right straight into the tomb. John then followed him. There, the two of them made an astounding discovery. Now, I want you to understand that the Biblical account contains several tiny little details which we tend to overlook, little details which prove to be terribly significant. And I believe that on this Easter, it is important for us to meet and to master those little details.
Here is the first of those details.
Peter and John noticed that the grave clothes were still in the tomb.
That was an astonishing fact. You see, if the body of Jesus had been removed, or stolen, or carried away as they presumed it had been, well, the grave clothes would never have been left behind. Understand please that in those days, no one but no one ever dared to handle a dead body unless that body was completely enfolded and encased in grave clothes. No live skin would ever touch any dead skin. It never happened. It couldn’t have happened. And so the first thing they noticed was the grave clothes were still there.
Furthermore, the grave clothes were made of the very finest linen, very valuable, very expensive. In those days, even the poorest of people were buried in the finest linen grave clothes. That fabric was so valuable that no one, and certainly no grave robber, no one would ever dare to leave those incredibly valuable grave clothes simply lying there in the tomb. It just wouldn’t have happened.
And then there is one more little detail which I actually believe to be the most crucial of them all. Peter and John saw that the grave clothes were not just tossed around the tomb. They weren’t even unfolded and then piled up in a corner. The only thing piled in the corner was the headpiece, the piece of cloth that was used to cover the head and the face of Jesus in His burial. That headpiece had been carefully folded and placed to the side. But the grave clothes had—and let me encourage you please to listen very carefully here because John in telling the story uses in the original language a very specific word which carries a very precise meaning, and he actually uses the word twice to make the point. John says that the grave clothes had—listen—had fallen in upon themselves. Catch that. They had fallen in upon themselves. It was as if the body of Jesus had suddenly evaporated from out of the midst of them, and the grave clothes then had just collapsed down upon themselves and been left undisturbed. John immediately saw the significance of that. He immediately saw it, and I love the way the Bible puts it. It says, “He saw and he believed.” There in the dawn’s early light, it dawned on John that Jesus had been raised from the dead. His body had not been carried out of that tomb. He had emerged from that tomb under His own power, and the proof—hear me—the proof is in the fact that in the process of His rising, the grave clothes had simply fallen down upon themselves and were left undisturbed.
Now, I would never presume to stand in this pulpit and try to explain to you how the resurrection of Jesus happened. I cannot begin to describe the magnificently mysterious process by which Jesus was raised from the dead. All I can do is to tell you the story. And in telling you the story, point to those tiny little details which turn out to be terribly significant, and all of them have about them the ring of truth.
So I cannot tell you how the resurrection happened, but I do believe that it happened.
I believe that. I believe Jesus was raised from the dead. I believe that with my life and everything else that I believe in my life flows out of that single simple shining belief. Everything. I believe it with my life, and I tell you truly I would willingly give up my life before ever I would renounce that belief. And that is why the Easter story is the story I never tire of telling. Well, I think the only way to make the point is to try to give you my own personal witness of Easter. So I’m going to ask you to do something right now. I’m going to ask you to hold on tight because I’m getting ready to kick it up a notch here. I’m asking you to hold on tight, and that’s all right because after all it is Easter. Oh, yes. It is Easter.
Because of Easter, I want to tell you straight of my heart that the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has altered once for all and forever my own personal understanding of my life and my own personal perspective on the world. Oh, I know. I know there are lots of people out there in the world who would declare that this belief of mine is nothing more than wishful thinking and mindless fantasy. Let them say what they wish. I know what is true. I know that Jesus Christ is alive and living now, and I know that’s true because He is living in me. He has poured into my life every single day a sense of meaning and purpose. He has lifted me out of any distress and despair I’ve encountered along my life’s way. He has flooded my experience with unbridled joy. He has taught my heart to sing. He has given me every day the gift of life, and love, and laughter, given me every day the gift of faith, and family, and friends. And He has even given me—thank God—the gift of serving Him here in this magnificent church of ours. And He has taught me—best of all, He has taught me—He has convinced me—He has assured me that my life will end not with a whimper but with a Hallelujah Chorus. And, therefore, I can move through every single day in the midst of a world like this where we are surrounded on every hand by the tidings of death, where violence is the expected and even accepted reality, where human life both born and pre-born is counted as an expendable commodity, where anger and hatred are celebrated as liberators, where despair has become the god of the stage, and the screen, and art, and literature. Even in the midst of a world like that, I can live because Jesus Christ has conquered sin, and evil, and death, and the grave. Yes. Because He lives, I can face today, and I can face tomorrow serene and unafraid.
I believe that because of Easter and because of Easter, I believe that God created the universe, and the world, and everything in them. And because of Easter, I believe that God is in control of the universe, and the world, and everything in your life and mine. And I believe that Jesus Christ is nothing less than God Almighty come to this earth in human flesh and human form. And I believe that Jesus Christ, my Christ, Christ alone is my Savior and my Lord. And I believe that Jesus Christ is the sacrificial Lamb of God who gave away His life on the cross in order to cover your sin and mine. And I believe that the Holy Spirit is nothing less than the great energizing power of God at work in the world, and in the church, and in your life and mine. And I believe that that spirit is at work every single day orchestrating events, changing circumstances, softening hearts, transforming lives, enabling us to draw closer, and closer, and closer to Jesus Christ, enabling us to know more, and more, and more that we are forgiven and covered by the blood of the Lamb. I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is nothing less than the new Israel, and I believe that the day will come in ways that we cannot yet begin to understand. I believe the day will come when the old Israel, the chosen people of God, and the new Israel, the Church of Jesus Christ, shall be reunited in redemption before God’s throne of grace in the kingdom of heaven. Because of Easter I believe that.
And because of Easter, I believe that you and I, though we die, though we suffer, though we hurt, though we fall, though we fail, though we are frustrated, though we have questions we cannot answer, though we have problems we cannot resolve, you and I, nevertheless, we are a part of God’s creative march through the flow of human history. And God has placed you, and He’s placed me on this earth for a purpose, and He calls us to find that purpose and to fulfill it. And I believe that Jesus Christ just as He promised He would will return to this earth. And when he returns to this earth, the curtain will ring down on the human experience and everything that the Bible predicts will come gloriously true. And I believe that you and I will stand before God in the kingdom of heaven. And to the one side of God we’ll see the twelve patriarchs of Israel. To the other side of God, we’ll see the twelve apostles of the church. And before God we’ll see the host of the martyrs, those men, women, and children who have given their lives for the sake of faith in Jesus Christ. And in that moment, everything will come crystal clear. Suddenly, all our questions will be answered, all our problems will be resolved, all our frustrations will be removed, and we will understand the where, why, and how we fit into God’s great ultimate scheme of things.
And I believe that by the grace of Jesus Christ, you and I shall experience our own resurrection to eternal life, and we shall be reunited with all those we love who have preceded us there. And I believe that then, yes then, we shall see the new heaven and the new earth. And we’ll understand that life here however good is just a pale imitation of the life that waits for us there. And we’ll understand that what happens here, however cherished, is just a hint, just a glimpse, just a foretaste, just a preliminary exercise for the glory of the true life that waits for us there. I believe that because of Easter.
And therefore, my beloved people, on this great Easter day, I want you to know what I know. I want you to know what it is to have a new powerful personal relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Mind you, I’m not offering you here some squishy little god of nature as is so popularly presented and extolled in our time and by our culture. I’m not offering you here some vague ethereal spirit who defies description or definition. I’m not offering you here some cuddle-up, fuzzy-wuzzy, feel-good little god who has no more power and presence than the stuffed animal sitting on your bed. No. I’m offering you Christ. Jesus Christ, the risen Christ, the living Christ, the Christ who took the worst this world can dish out, the Christ who ran slap in to the cold hard reality of death and emerged on the other side whole and complete, triumphant and victorious. I’m offering you Christ, the Christ who stands right here, right now, ready to deliver into your life and into mine His great death-defying, death-defeating power.
I want you to know what I know. I want you to know what it is like to live your life in obedience to Jesus Christ every single day and every single way. I want you to know what I know that one day we shall see God. We shall behold Him. We shall see Him face to face, and we shall hear Jesus Christ say directly to each one of us, “My blood has made you clean. Enter into all the glory and joy of your Heavenly Father.”
I want you to know what I know. I want you to know that then we will join a great multitude of people. A multitude of people so vast it cannot be numbered. A multitude of people from every land and nation, from every language and tribe. A multitude of people, we shall join them. And we shall join our voices with them in praising God that at long last, the kingdoms of this world had become the kingdom of our God and of His risen Christ. And He shall reign forever and ever.
I want you to know what I know. I want you to know that by the power of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, you and I, we, oh yes, we are forever Easter people and hallelujah is our song.
Amen and amen.