Sunday, April 11, 2004

Easter Day, The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12

This is the day which Jehovah hath made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.

We certainly have a great many choices for scripture this Sunday. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the emotion most greatly felt on this day would be joy. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Yet, as we read the accounts of the empty tomb, joy is not among the first responses. The women and the disciples are confused, uncertain, even unbelieving at first.

In Luke, the women found the tombstone rolled away and nothing inside. They were afraid of the two men that appeared before them and hid their faces. When the angels reminded them of Jesus' words, they remembered and returned to the place where the disciples were staying. They told them all they say, but the disciples doubted their words. Peter did go to the tomb, but even after seeing the strips of burial cloth, he wondered about what was happening.

In John, Mary went to the tomb first, before the first light of day. When she found the empty tomb, she ran back to the disciples grieving not only the death of her Lord but also the loss of His body. She did not know where it was taken. So, Peter and another disciple, probably John, ran to the tomb and also saw it was empty. John got there first, but did not go inside right away. Peter went in and found the strips and then John joined him. When John saw the linen, he believed.

But who did he believe? Did he believe everything Jesus had been telling them for three years? Did he believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? At this point, John tells us that Peter and John still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. So, he didn't necessarily believe that Jesus was alive, but that the tomb was empty.

It's not enough for us to rejoice over an empty tomb. The fact that Jesus' body was gone on that day was no proof that God's promises were true. There are many explanations for the disappearance of a body. Though it is unlikely, grave robbers may have robbed the tomb. The Romans or the Jewish authorities could have taken the body to ensure the disciples would not try to pull something. One of Jesus' followers may have removed the body to try to prove something. Mary, Peter, John or any of the others who witnessed the empty tomb could have come up with a number of reasons Jesus' body might be gone. They were not yet thinking clearly, so were confused, uncertain and grieving.

After Peter and John left the tomb, Mary stayed behind to weep. She saw the two men in the cave, sitting at the head and the foot of the resting place of Jesus. They asked her why she was crying. "I do not know where they put the body of my Lord," she said. Then she turned and saw Jesus, but in her grief and misunderstanding she did not know it was He. He asked her why she was crying. Again she answered that she did not know where Jesus' body was taken. Jesus called her by name, and she knew. Jesus is alive. This is the moment when Mary rejoiced. The empty tomb brought more grief, but the presence of the living Christ gave her joy.

In Luke, we do not yet see the joy because Jesus did not yet make an appearance to His people in this passage. The women remembered the things Jesus had said, putting a glimmer of hope in their story to the disciples, but there was not yet joy because the empty tomb only brings questions. In John, when Mary returned to the disciples the second time, she proclaimed a much different message. It was not about an empty tomb but about a risen Lord. This is the message of Easter, a message of hope and of peace and of joy.

When we look at the passage from Acts, we see Peter telling the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Peter tells those listening that they were chosen as witnesses, not to an empty tomb but to the living Christ. "Him God raised up the third day, and gave him to be made manifest, not to all the people, but unto witnesses that were chosen before of God, even to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead." (Acts 10:40-41, ASV)

This risen Jesus commanded the disciples to preach to the people and to testify that Jesus is indeed the appointed Messiah. He was the One for whom they waited, the One promised through the prophets and the scriptures. The disciples were called to preach the risen Lord so that the people who know God's Word is true and believe. Those who believe receive forgiveness of sin through Jesus' name.

Jesus in not just a risen Lord, but He is the living Lord, present among His people. The Christian faith would be nowhere if there were no witnesses to testify that Jesus is alive. What hope is there in an empty tomb? The angels who met the women at the tomb asked, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

One of my favorite memories from our time in England was a visit to Westminster Abbey. We began our tour of this amazing place at around noon. We followed the path, looking at tombs of kings, queens, world leaders, artists and authors - people who'd changed the world in their lifetimes. It was an awesome experience to stand among these monuments.

When we were at the far east end of the abbey, we heard an announcement that there would be a communion service at 1230. We had visited dozens of the ancient churches in England, but rarely timed our visits so well that we could attend a service. We were so excited that we were able to worship God with other brothers and sisters in Christ during our visit, we hopped over barriers and pushed through crowds with the help of the workers in the abbey.

As I knelt at the rail, receiving the body and blood of my Lord Jesus, I couldn't help but wonder about all those who had knelt at that place before - those kings, queens, world leaders, artists and authors who were buried in that church along with, perhaps, millions of other people both famous and not. Yet, at that altar, all are equal no matter their position in life because in the eyes of God we wear the righteousness of His Son our Lord.

What struck me most after the service was over was how few had joined in the celebration. There were likely a thousand people who continued to look at the tombs and memorials of all those dead people while a couple dozen people worshipped the living God. I suppose the question that could be asked of those visitors would be "Why are you seeking the dead when there is One greater who is living?"

Yet, I wonder how many people attend church every Easter, looking to rejoice over the empty tomb but forgetting that the empty tomb means there is a living Christ. We say the words, "He is risen" but what does it mean for us? For one, we have the hope of the promise; that our tombs will also be empty and we will be living with Jesus for eternity in heaven. Is that enough? Is it enough to have the promise of eternal life, or is there something more to the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

The Old Testament lesson for this week comes from the prophet Isaiah. In this passage, God describes the world to come, the way we will live in that day when He has created the new heavens and new earth. It will be a place of joy, of peace. It will be a place where God delights in His people and where His people no longer weep in pain or sadness. "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith Jehovah." Even Paul writes about this future hope, the promise of the end of sin and death. Though Adam all men face death, but through Christ we have the promise of new life.

The future hope is certainly something for which we can rejoice, a reason to celebrate Easter. Yet the joy is not just for the tomorrow we do not know, but it is also for the today in which we live. The psalmist, in today's song rejoicing in the salvation of God, sings, "This is the day which Jehovah hath made; We will rejoice and be glad in it." Today is the day for which we have life eternal.

The whole purpose of the cross of Jesus Christ was to overcome our sin so that we might be forgiven and live forgiven in this world. It is not enough to celebrate the empty tomb once a year, we are called in our forgiveness to live as Easter people every day. Easter people are not those who remember what happened on that day in the garden when Mary, Peter and John were confused by the disappearance of their Lord Jesus' body or who look for the living among the dead. Rather, Easter people are those who live among the dead and take the living Christ to them so that they too might have forgiveness and new life.

We worshipped in Westminster Abbey among the living dead. We walk every day among the living dead. In our work, our schools and even our homes, we live among the living dead. These are people who are alive and well in this world, but who have no idea that there is a living God. They might be aware of the story of Jesus, of His life and even of His death. They may even attend church on those special days, looking at the miraculous birth and empty tomb with awe. Yet, somehow they do not truly know the Living Lord of the forgiveness He gives.

The hard part is that sometimes we forget to pass on that forgiveness that we have so graciously been given. When sinners seek to know the Lord Jesus, do we really give them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, offering them true forgiveness for their sin? I have heard that there are ex-convicts fellowshipping among communities of Christians who are unable to admit their past out of fear that they will be rejected. Some sins are much greater than others in our eyes. What would happen if a rapist, murderer or child abuser wanted to join your fellowship? Would you say "Jesus forgives" but turn your back on their needs? While it is true that Jesus is the only one who can forgive sins, we are called as Easter people to bring that forgiveness to the living dead in this world. We are called to deliver the promise of hope that comes with the empty tomb to the people who are dying in their sin.

Yet, even more so, we are called to introduce the world to the Living Christ. How can they see Him living in us if we reject them and turn our backs on their greatest needs - not only physical, but also emotional and spiritual?

Our churches this Easter will be filled with people, many of whom will be first time visitors. A great many who have seen the story of Jesus' passion will come seeking the rest of the story. What will they find in your fellowship? Will they see an empty tomb and only a promise of the hope to come? Or will they see the Living Christ and rejoice in this day as they receive the forgiveness that comes from Christ through His believers - the forgiveness that they need for true life now and forever? This is the day which Jehovah hath made; We will rejoice and be glad in it. The Lord is risen, He is risen indeed.

Thanks be to God.

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