Theme: There are good reasons to believe that Jesus Christ has been resurrected from the dead. But the resurrection also reminds us that if we do believe, then life can never be the same again.
This continues the sermon series “The Passion,” leading us through Lent and preparing our hearts and minds for the Easter celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. The scripture texts match those of this year’s Lenten study groups, and is based upon “Journey to the Cross” written by Debbie Schmidt.
This series also helps us explore some of the issues brought up by the recent movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”
Hallelujah, He’s alive. That’s what the children tell us. At Easter we celebrate one of the most unimaginable things. We celebrate the fact that a man was brutally murdered publically. He was buried in a tomb that all kinds of people knew about, and yet three days later he was seen by all kinds of people who watched him die and never expected to ever see him again. And so from the very start of the church, there has been this message, Jesus has risen. He’s alive. And He is alive never to die again. Now, if Jesus isn’t alive, if He hasn’t risen from the dead, then Easter is the saddest and silliest moment of the whole year for the Christian church. If Jesus is not alive then that means that right now in the world there is about a billion people who are deceived, tragically deceived. It means that across the centuries millions of people have died for no reason. If Jesus is not alive it means there is no Christianity because Christianity without a risen Jesus doesn’t hold together, and for me personally, if Jesus is not resurrected from the dead, then even the existence of God is an open question for me. So that means that it makes sense every once in a while for us to kind of review in our minds whether it really does make sense, whether it is reasonable to believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
Now I can’t do that sort of thing exhaustively, to talk about all the issues involved in that. There are all kinds of books that have been written about this. In fact, a number of people across history have started out to write a book disputing whether Jesus was resurrected from the dead. They became convinced he was and then wrote a book about how he was resurrected from the dead. And so the stack of books on it are about this high and I am not going to read that many books to prepare for a sermon for you, and I don’t think you would be willing to listen to a sermon that long either. So instead we are going to go into the text of Mark 16 and look at the issues that it brings up and just reflect for a few moments on that. But to set the stage for that, I would like to first go to another book of the Bible just for a moment. We ar going to bring it up on the screen in a moment, but it comes from the Book of 1st Corinthians, chapter 15 and in this book that Paul wrote about 53 or 54 AD, about 20 years after Jesus was crucified. In this book he says the things that I am going tell you, that I am passing on to you are things that I have received from someone else. And as we look at the specific things he says, the way it is structured shows us that this was something that was probably used as a creed or as a teaching tool and so here is something 20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus and yet it is something that has been formulated and hammered into a certain shape and then passed on long before that to Paul. So I would like to bring it up on the screen now some of the oldest words we find in the New Testament and I would like us to say them together.
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.”
This gets to the heart of what the church has always presented as true. It is always presented about the core of their identity and so what we are looking at in Mark 16 are things that come to the very core of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to believe about Jesus Christ. So we come into Chapter 16 and we find three women on their way to the tomb of Jesus. It’s just after sunrise and they are on their way to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Now, it was a Jewish custom that when someone died, you would clean their body with perfumes and spices, prepare the body, wrap it up and then it was properly prepared for burial. But in Jesus’ case he died right before the start of the Sabbath and because of that, they weren’t going to work on the Sabbath and preparing that body would be work and so they put if off. Jesus’ body is buried and they don’t feel like it has been properly prepared for that burial, so the very first time that there is daylight after the Sabbath, they are on their way to the tomb. That’s a long way of saying these three women are looking for a dead body. I think it is important to note that. These are not a group of hysterical people that just can’t believe that their leader has died and that some how they are going to make up an appearance. There are people like that. They are the people who have Elvis sightings. So I went to the Elvis sighting bulletin board. This is one of many of them. This one has 362 entries. I want to read you one of them.
“I just walked out of Graham Floral and thought about eating at New Graham Pharmacy’s lunch counter, but decided otherwise and I am sure glad I did. I went across the street to Dairy Queen and held the door open for Bob Denver as he was walking out with a Blizzard and a banana split. You know Mr. Denver from Dobie Gillis and Gilligan’s Island. He lives only a few miles away in Princeton, West Virginia. What shocked me wasn’t this celebrity encounter, but the celebrity sitting inside of Mr. Denver’s SUV. I have seen photo’s, movies, magazines and books with the big Elvis detailed and I can state with certainty that Mr. Denver’s co-pilot on that day was none other than Elvis Presley. Elvis looked good. In shape and dressed like a yuppie. He smiled either at me, Mr. Denver, or the banana split.. I am not sure which. Whatever the case, the lip curl was unmistakable. Date submitted, Friday, March 12, 2004.”
Now I know that a lot of people who have these sightings are pulling our legs because there are a lot more Elvis sightings on April 1st than on other days of the year. But, right after Elvis died there were a lot of people who sincerely believed that they did see him because they just couldn’t believe that somebody that prominent, that important, someone they loved that much could possible have died. Well, I think the evidence we see from the behavior of these women in this chapter indicates that these women weren’t that type of person. They were so sure that Jesus was dead that they had spent the money and the time to gather together the spices to bury him. They had gotten up early and left their homes in order to go and deal with this dead body. And then on the way there they are discussing whether they can possibly get the tomb open because in those days, the tomb was in a hillside and the doorway was covered by a large round stone that was on a slight incline. It was very easy to roll the stone into place, but it took a number of strong people to roll it away. And so they are even wondering whether they are even going to be able to get into the tomb to be able to prepare the body. These are grief stricken people, but they are normal people. Something else I want you to notice about these very first few verses,is when they get there they find that the stone has already been rolled away, and they see a man inside in a white robe and I want you to notice what their first response is. As they entered the tomb, they see this man and they were alarmed. Their first response is not joy. It’s alarm. In fact, they talk about their emotional response to this three times and its being alarmed, trembling and being bewildered. These are confused people who are experiencing something they did not expect to experience. And they need some time to process what’s happening. They are bewildered.
In verse 6 it says, “Don’t be alarmed, You are looking for Jesus, the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.” They are not even allowed to guess why the tomb is empty. You want to know why there is a messenger there? It’s because they are not being allowed to guess why the tomb is empty because resurrection wasn’t real high on their list of choices, if they were going to think about why it was empty. And so they are told, they are given an interpretation. He’s risen. He’s alive. So what we have here is a record of the kind of behavior you expect of credible witnesses. Normal people in an extremely unique situation.
Something else to notice is that all of these first witnesses are women. Now, I want you to think about this for a moment. Imagine you are in a society like, a radical fundamentalist Islamic society, headed by a group like the Taliban. Now, you want to make up a story now to convince them that something happened that really didn’t happen. If you are going to do that, you would never use a women as a witness, because in most of these Islamic societies, women in most cases can’t be witnesses. They are not considered to be credible witnesses. You would use a man instead. Now early society in Israel, at the time of Jesus, was very much like this. Women were not much part of public life. In addition, if they thought it was better if unmarried women didn’t even go out in public and when women did go out in public, they wore veils just like in Islamic societies today. They were not educated and they were not legal witnesses in Jewish law. And so you would never make up a story and then make these witnesses women unless you had to because it was what really happened. So, the fact that all four gospels indicate that these women were the first witnesses is another sign in my mind and in the minds of most scholars that look at it, that this is a sign that is not fabricated. However amazing, the resurrection story, a very early part of the proclamation of the church, doesn’t bear the marks of being fabricated, at least in this way.
Now let me summarize some of the things that are implied by what we see in these verses. The first is that the resurrection and the empty tomb are a very early tradition in the church. It’s a firm teaching long before Paul writes 1st Corinthians and that happens only 20 years after Jesus’ death. So this tradition is very old and gets pushed very close to the actual death and resurrection of Jesus. The second point is, that the site of Jesus’ tomb was a matter of public knowledge and yet the preaching about Jesus being resurrected happened in the very town where his body was buried. And so, all people had to do to settle this question and stop the movement, was to go open the tomb and produce a body. But they never did. The third thing, we can tell from the language and grammar of the whole final part of Mark that here Mark himself is using sources that are older than his own book. He is writing a book about 30 years after the death of Jesus Christ and in that, he’s using sources that were orally transmitted and then actually written down sometime before he actually used them. So again, this pushes the dates very early. And if the source of this early, it hasn’t had the time to build up the kind of crazy, wild legends that accumulate in stories that have had hundreds of years to develop.
And so what we see here in Mark, the next point, is that there is a simplicity here. It’s not a florid account. Even accounts that are only 100 years later, that are made up talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, if they are incredible. There is you know, Jesus confronts all of his enemies and the people who don’t believe in him, there are fireworks and lighting effects and everything. It’s an amazing thing and that’s what happens when you make up stories. But we don’t’ have that here. We have something very simple and direct. The fifth point is the unanimous testimony in all of the gospels that the empty tomb was found first by women. Another mark that it wasn’t fabricated. The sixth point, is that the earliest responses of the Jewish leaders who oppose the church, presuppose an empty tomb. They consider other reasons why its empty, but they never dispute the fact that it was empty.
I mentioned earlier how foolish it would be if the resurrection had never happened. But what if it did happen? What if, indeed, Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead and is alive right now? If that’s true then we celebrate at Easter an absolutely unique point in human history. If Jesus is resurrected from the dead, if the resurrection is true it means that what Jesus said about God and about himself is true. It means that what he said about sin and punishment, heaven and hell, forgiveness and new life is true and everything depends upon us listening to what he said. If the resurrection is true, it means that the creator of all the universe has intervened in human history. And that when He did, He intervened in love.
But the biggest moment in human history is a moment where God declares in absolutely clear actions and words, that his first and deepest response to us is love. Because he is dealing with our biggest problem, our relationship with himself. And so that means that no matter how bad life can seem, that behind it all there is a love that can never change for each one of us. As it says in another part of the Bible, it says, “if God didn’t spare his own Son, but freely gave him for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us everything we need.” (Romans: 8: v32) Nothing can separate us from that kind of love. If the resurrection is true it means that there is an eternal future. What we see happening in Jesus Christ is not some kind of cosmic CPR that just brings Jesus back to life for a few more years, but something unique is happening. There is something going on that’s even more enduring and more real than the universe we see around us. It’s resurrection into a new quality of life that’s called eternal life and that this is the life that is promised to us. And it means that if we believe this, we can never live the same way again. If the resurrection is true, how can we live as if God doesn’t exist? If the resurrection is real and God has a love like this for us and has prepared a future for us, how is that going to affect the way we do our jobs? How’s it going to affect the way we handle our money and raise our children and relate in our marriages? If God is real, if his love is real, if this eternal future is real, how should our lives be different?
If you have never made the decision to turn from your old way of life and follow Jesus, then one thing I want you to understand is that you don’t have to throw your mind away to do it. There are good reasons, reasonable reasons to believe that Jesus Christ has been resurrected from the dead. And there are good reason then to believe that He is someone we need to listen to and someone who has made things right between usand God. But the resurrection also reminds us that if we do believe, then life can never be the same again. Because the God of the universe has laid a claim on us and life then means a lot more than us just being safe and getting ahead. Because God has a plan, a plan shaped by love and spanning eternity and He is working some of that out in us. And if that is true, then to miss that, to not be part of that, means that we miss our whole reason for existence. If God is real, it’s that important. Because Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, life can never be the same, because Jesus Christ was resurrected, we can never be the same.
Let’s pray. Gracious God, we believe. Help our unbelief and help us now Lord, change us from the inside out, that through the power of our living and resurrected Savior you might make us into the new kind of people you want us to be. For we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.