Montreat Conference Center Summer Worship Series 2021
This sermon can be viewed on Vimeo.
I wish to read for you from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. I shall begin to read at the third verse. This is 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 he believed.”
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Here is the story I never tire of telling. It is a story so simple, so beautiful, so simply beautiful that it is every bit and fresh and powerful today as it was when it was first written by Jesus’ best friend, the disciple John. It’s the story of the first Resurrection Day.
It was a custom in first-century Jerusalem for the wealthy citizens of that city to own private gardens located outside the walls of the city, quiet, lovely places to which they could repair if they desired in order to escape the dust and the noise, the hustle and the bustle of the city. But also those lovely gardens adorned with brightly colored flowers served the wealthy citizens of Jerusalem as places for them to bury the members of their families, and so those private gardens did double duty both as a private retreat and a family cemetery.
Joseph of Arimathea owned one of those private gardens, and thanks to the kindness and generosity of Joseph, Jesus, after He was crucified late on that Friday afternoon was actually buried in Joseph’s garden. Think of it. Jesus’ life on this earth began in a borrowed womb and ended in a borrowed tomb.
John says it was early on Sunday morning. Very early. In fact, John says, “While it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene, one of the followers of Jesus, left the city headed out towards Joseph’s garden. It was her intent to attempt to improve upon the rather hasty burial Jesus had received on that late Friday afternoon. Because the Jewish Sabbath began at sundown Friday, ended sundown Saturday, nothing could take place in the intervening hours. Sunday morning was the first opportunity for Mary to make this trek and to perform this task. When she arrived at Joseph’s garden, she was startled to see the great stone sealing the tomb had been moved aside. In a mixture of alarm and despair, she cried out, “They have taken away my Lord.” And without bothering to further investigate, she wheeled around and ran back into the city in order to tell the disciples what had happened.
Peter and John, thunderstruck by this terrible news, themselves then dashed out of the city headed toward Joseph’s garden. It’s amazing to me how the events of that first Resurrection Day always unfolded in double time. I mean, there was a lot of running going on that whole time. John, maybe because he was younger, could run faster apparently. He arrived at the garden first. Didn’t go into the tomb. I suppose he was trying to absorb the details of what he was seeing. But Peter, no! Not ol’ brusque, impetuous, impatient, impulsive Peter. No, he badged right into the garden and charged straight into the tomb. John then followed. The two of them made an astonishing discovery.
Now John, in relating the story, inserts in the story several tiny little details. Little details which we tend to overlook when we read this story. Tiny little details which actually prove quite significant. Let me show you what I mean.
The first little detail was this. 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 carried away or removed or stolen as they presumed it had, well, the grave clothes would never have been left behind. Why? Because in that day and time, no one but no one ever dared to handle a dead body without that body being completely enclosed and encased in grave clothes. No live skin could ever touch any dead skin. Not ever. It never happened. But the grave clothes were still there.
Furthermore, the grave clothes were actually made of the very finest quality of linen. A linen which was incredibly expensive to buy. Grave clothes were always made out of this very expensive fabric. And even the poorest of the poor were always buried in these incredibly expensive grave clothes. It was an act of respect and reverence. But that linen was so extravagantly expensive that no one, and certainly no grave robber, would ever have left the grave clothes in the tomb. It never would have happened.
One other tiny little detail. For me, it’s the most significant of them all. Peter and John noticed that the grave clothes were not just tossed about casually in the tomb, not even folded up and set aside. The only thing folded up and set aside was the square headpiece, the cloth piece that covered the face and head of Jesus in His burial. The grave clothes, however, were not tossed aside, not folded up. No, they were – and here you have to listen very carefully, please.
John, in writing the account, uses at this point, in the original language a very precise word which carries a very precise meaning and he repeated the word twice in order to make the point. John says that the grave clothes – listen – had fallen in upon themselves. It was as if the body of Jesus suddenly evaporated out of the grave clothes. And the grave clothes were then left to just collapse upon themselves and remain undisturbed.
John saw that, immediately caught the significance, and I love what the Bible says. The Bible says, “He saw and he believed.” Right there in the dawn’s early light, it dawned on John that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead. His body had not been carried out of that tomb. No. He had emerged from the tomb under His own power, and in the process of His rising, the grave clothes had simply fallen in upon themselves and were left undisturbed.
I would never presume to try to explain to you how the resurrection occurred. I cannot begin to comprehend the magnificently mysterious process by which Jesus was raised from the dead. All I can do is tell you the story. It’s a story I never tire of telling. And whenever I tell the story, I always point to those tiny little details that turn out to be so significant and each of whom has about it the ring of truth. And I have to tell you every time I tell the story, I find myself looking through John’s eyes, and I find myself echoing his words: I see and I believe.
I do not know how the resurrection happened but I do believe it did happen. I believe it with my life and every other belief that I hold in my life is based upon that single, simple, shining, unshakeable belief that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. I believe it. I believe it with my life, and I tell you truly, I would gladly renounce my life and give it away before ever I would renounce that belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I see and I believe.
Well, I don’t know how to make the point except to share with you how the resurrection has impacted my life and my belief. So I’m going to ask you to do something for me right now. I want you to hold on tight because you see, I’m getting ready to kick it up a notch here. I want you to hold on tight, so let’s roll. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed once and for all and forever my understanding of my own life and once and for all and forever my understanding of the world around us. Oh, I know, I know, I know. There’re all kinds of people out there who would dismiss this belief of mine as wishful thinking and mindless fantasy. Let them say whatever they wish. I do not care. I know what is true.
And here is what is true. Jesus Christ is alive and living now and I know that’s true because He is living in me. He has poured Himself in ways I cannot imagine into my own life. He has given me a sense of meaning and purpose in life. He set before me the promise of an ultimate destiny. He has flooded my life with unbridled joy and He’s taught my heart to sing. He’s lifted me, literally lifted me out of every distress and defeat and depression that I have known along my life’s way. He has blessed my life every day with the gift of love and laughter and life and faith and family and friends, and maybe best of all for me, He’s given me the incredible honor of serving Him for more than 50 years in His Gospel ministry.
He has taught me, convinced me, assured me that my life is not going to end in a whimper but rather in a Hallelujah Chorus. And therefore, I can move through every day in the midst of a world like this. A world where we are surrounded on every hand by the tidings of death. A world where violence is the expected, maybe even accepted, reality. A world where human life both born and preborn is counted as an expendable commodity. A world where anger and hatred are celebrated as liberators. A world where cynicism and despair have become the gods of stage and screen and art and literature. Even in a world like that, I can move through every day knowing that Jesus Christ has conquered sin and evil and death and the grave. Because He lives, I can face today. And because He lives, I can even face tomorrow, serene and unafraid. I believe that because of the Resurrection.
And because of the Resurrection, I believe that God Almighty created the world, the universe, and everything in them. I believe that God is in control of the world and the universe and every thing in your life and in mine. I believe that Jesus Christ is in fact God Almighty come to this earth in human form and human flesh. And I believe this Jesus, my Jesus, is my savior and my Lord. And I believe that this Jesus, as He promised He would, will return to the earth and when He returns, then everything the Bible predicts will come gloriously true. I believe that the Holy Spirit is nothing less than the energizing power of God at work in the world and the church and in your life and mine. I believe that Spirit is working every moment of every day, orchestrating events, changing circumstances, softening hearts, transforming lives, enabling us to see more and more that we can draw closer and closer to Jesus in life, enabling us to see more and more that we in fact are forgiven. We are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.
I believe that the Church is nothing less than the new Israel. And I believe in ways that we cannot begin to imagine or comprehend now, 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 the throne of God’s grace in the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe that because of the resurrection.
And because of the resurrection, I believe that you and I, though we die, though we suffer, though we hurt, though we fall, though we fail, though we have frustrations that bedevil us, though we have questions we cannot answer, though we have problems we cannot resolve, though we have doubts we cannot overcome, I believe that nevertheless you and I are part of God’s creating march through human history, and I believe that God has placed each one of us on this earth for a purpose and God calls us to find that purpose and to fulfill it in our everyday living.
And I believe the day will come when we will stand before God in Heaven. To one side we’ll see the twelve patriarchs of Israel, to the other side we’ll see the twelve apostles of the church. And before God, we will see the vast array of Christian martyrs, women, men, and children who have given their lives for the sake of their faith in Jesus Christ. And that incredible mass will be bathed in a holy and incandescent light. And I believe that in that moment suddenly everything will become crystal clear. Suddenly our questions will be answered, our frustrations removed, our problems solved, our doubts erased, and for the first time maybe ever we will understand at last the who, what, why, where, and how you and I actually fit into God’s great ultimate scheme of things.
And there, we shall recognize that we are being given the gift of our own resurrection, the gift of eternal life, and then we shall proceed, thank God, yes, we shall proceed to be reunited with those whom we so dearly love who have preceded us there. And then we shall see the new Heaven and the new earth and we shall come to understand that life here, however good, is just a pale imitation of the life that waits for us there, that whatever happens here, however cherished, is just a hint, just a glimpse, just a foretaste, just a preliminary exercise for the true glory that waits for us there. I believe that because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So, my dear friends and fellow travelers, I want you to know what I know. I want you, I so want you to know what it is to enjoy a powerful personal relationship with Jesus Christ in your life. Mind you, I’m not offering you here some squishy little god of nature as is so often proclaimed in our time and in our culture. I’m not offering you here some vague, hazy, ethereal spirit who defies all description and definition. I’m not offering you here some cuddle-up, feel-good fuzzy-wuzzy little God who has no more power and presence than the stuffed animals sitting on your bed.
No. I’m offering you Christ. The risen Christ. The living Christ. The Christ who possessed the rippling muscles and the taut sinews of a hard-working carpenter. The Christ whose mental, emotional, moral, and spiritual strength has never been equaled. The Christ who could stand in the bow of a fishing boat in the midst of a raging storm and command the wind to be still. The Christ who could walk into the midst of a hostile crowd, never blinking an eye nor mincing a word. The Christ who could do battle with the devil in a desert and win. The Christ who singlehandedly, with nothing more than a blazing tongue and a cracking whip, could drive the moneychangers out of the temple, flipping their tables in the air, sending their coins clattering across the stone pavers of the table court, and sending the moneychangers themselves scattering like a flushed covey of quail.
I’m offering you Christ. Jesus Christ. The living Christ. The Christ who took on the very worst this world can dish out. The Christ who ran headlong into the cold, hard reality of death and emerged on the other side whole and complete, triumphant and victorious. I’m offering you Christ. Jesus Christ. The risen Christ. The living Christ.
I want you to know what I know. I’m offering you Jesus Christ who stands ready right, here right now to deliver into your life as well as into mine His great death-defying, death-defeating, death-destroying power. I want you to know what I know. Give your heart to Him as I have given mine. Give your life to Him as I have given mine.
I want you to know what I know. I want you to know the inexpressible joy of being able to live in obedience to Jesus Christ in your life in every day and in every way. I want you to know what I know. The indescribable pleasure and power of having before you an iron-clad promise of an eternal destiny. I want you to know what I know. That day is going to come when we shall behold God face to face. And in that moment we shall join a vast multitude of God’s people, a multitude so vast it cannot begin to be numbered, a multitude of people from every land and nation, from every language and tribe. We shall join that multitude of God’s people. We shall blend our voices with theirs, praising God that at long last the kingdoms of this world have 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. That you and you and you and you and you and you and you and I that we, yes, by the power of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, you and I, we are forever resurrection people, and hallelujah is our song.
Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the Glory. Amen and Amen.